In pulling out several settlements from Gaza, Sharon is thinking in demographic terms, writes Azmi Bishara
Sharon is not going to cede to the Palestinian Authority any land taken in 1948. What he is trying to do is draw the borders while annexing parts of the land occupied in 1967 -- this is his idea of "unilateral disengagement". Meanwhile, he complains that he cannot find a Palestinian partner with whom to share his ideas of a Palestinian state; a state established on 40 per cent of the West Bank plus Gaza. Sharon's speech at the Herzlia Conference should be taken seriously, for the man does not believe that a lasting solution is possible at the moment. He wants to get rid of the roadmap while portraying "unilateral withdrawal" as a daring step. In doing so, Sharon is helped by the clamour the Israeli right is raising about the evacuation of settlements. The right, with nothing better to do, is creating an "existential crisis" about the settlements to be evacuated so as to protect other settlements.
So long as the evacuation of the 17 settlements (why not the 21 settlements?) from Gaza is not taking part through negotiations, it cannot be seen as prelude to evacuating West Bank settlements. The whole scene of theatrics -- the confrontation with settlers, ministerial crises, referendums, and other sorts of innovative deception -- cannot just be repeated every two or three years. Israel is simply pulling out of one place to consolidate its settlements elsewhere. It is clear that Sharon likes to take unilateral steps, for he assumes that no Palestinian partner is willing to accept his current ideas. He is willing to pay the price for the unilateral imposition of borders, by evacuating 17 settlements that had no hope of surviving in the first place. As international and Arab public opinion is distracted with Israel's shenanigans, people forget that Sharon's main aim is to impose borders unilaterally and consolidate Israel's control of parts of the West Bank.
Sharon has become the main focus of Arab public opinion, as if he is the sole effective player left. People hang on to his every word. Some Arab media relay his speeches live. Such is the paralysis of the Arab situation. The man is practically announcing the death of the roadmap, on which the Arabs have pinned so much hope. He is also trying to maintain a strategic understanding with the US while breaking the spine of the nationalist movement in the West Bank and Gaza, through endless repression and brutality.
Israel's rulers are hoping that, in the ensuing confusion, some forces would emerge to impose law and order and begin an endless process of negotiations through which the consequences of Israel's redeployment, including the matters of final settlement, may be sorted out. This is a very dangerous scenario.
Every time Sharon ignores an Arab peace plan, new concessions emerge, then everyone waits for Sharon to make his move. This approach is becoming more futile in the absence of an Arab vision of a comprehensive settlement. We have seen attempts to impart Arab and European official approval on the Geneva initiative, so that it may become a new launching board for further concessions. The Geneva initiative has made concessions to humour the Zionist left. It abandoned the right of return and jettisoned the removal of all settlements. This was done while the Zionist left is not even in power.
The Arabs are being out-manoeuvred by Sharon, and they cannot compensate for this by relying on foreign countries. The Arabs need a common denominator, something that keeps them united despite differences on detail. The Arabs cannot fail to coordinate their position in dealing with the US, while hoping to get their act together with Europe. Europe is not going to help the Arabs unless the latter achieve a modicum of coordination. Should the Arabs continue to deal with the US in this same fragmented way we see now, it is only a matter of time before official Europe toes the US line. Each time the Arabs act so powerlessly towards the US, Europe is likely to step backwards. One cannot be domestically weak and expect help from outsiders.
There is no alternative for the Palestinian Authority and the resistance groups but to agree on a political programme and a common strategy for struggle. This process should start within Fatah. There are delicate moments ahead, for the restoration of order requires a measure of confrontation with the spontaneous local forces that remain committed to the cause. This may open the door for some people to question the leadership's ability to impose order, while trying to bring about a political alternative acceptable to the Americans. Yet, to leave matters as they are now is to invite disaster. A dialogue is needed, but not the type in which the Palestinian Authority seeks a cease-fire and the factions seek to survive temporary difficulties. The aim should be to determine the pace and type of resistance and the framework of a political programme binding on the negotiators. For starters, the Palestinians should seek a bilateral, not unilateral, cease-fire.
No one knows exactly what Sharon's ideas are concerning Israel's annexation of "unpopulated" land in the West Bank in exchange for land inhabited by Arab Israelis. Such ideas are racially motivated. No modern state, democratic or undemocratic, can treat part of its citizens as a "demographic problem" or "demographic bomb" and not expect this to lead to massacres and international condemnation.
Sharon seems to agree with what Netanyahu said at the Herzlia Conference; namely, that the real demographic problem is that of Israel's Arabs. Sharon believes that the number of Israeli Arabs should be reduced in the course of reaching a lasting settlement with the Palestinians. Using a more cagey language, he told the newspaper Ma'ariv: "I have suggested that the legal aspects of such a move be examined." Whether Sharon is serious about such a move or not, and whether the Palestinians are consulted or not, what is clear is that the Israeli prime minister is creating a question mark regarding the citizenship of Israeli Arabs. Theirs is a citizenship on probation, diminished. Israeli law differentiates between two types of citizenship. One is an ideological citizenship, emanating from the definition and purpose of the state, and it applies to Jews. The other is an accidental citizenship occasioned by the presence of Arabs in the country, and this can be disputed and reconsidered. This discrimination arises from Israel's definition of itself as a state for the Jews.
Israeli officials know that "transfer" is out of the question, for a repetition of exile is something Arab Israelis are bound to resist with a ferocity that would lead to bloodshed. Exile by force is out of the question, so is getting rid of Arab citizens together with their land. The one remaining alternative is for Israel to continue controlling the land while allowing people to reside on it; only their citizenship would be shifted to the Palestinian Authority or the Palestinian state that would eventually emerge. Such a move would deprive the Arab Israelis of their political rights. Sharon's plan for the 1948 Arabs is to separate their residence from the political rights normally associated with citizenship. This is the political mood that exists in the ruling Zionist apparatus.
While doing so, Israel seems to enjoy blackmailing the 1948 Arabs by making them continually express the desire to remain as citizens of that state. Israel loves it when 1948 Arabs prefer their current citizenship to that of a Palestinian state. So proud is Israel each time the Arabs express desire to remain Israeli citizens. The situation is so similar to one in which a Mexican living in America is grabbed by the collar and asked if he wants to retain his US citizenship. The only difference, however, is that the 1948 Arabs did not emigrate to Israel, Israel emigrated to them.
Israel's obsession with its Arab citizens betrays the fact that it is less of a "Jewish and democratic state" than a "Jewish and demographic" one. There is no country on earth so obsessed. Anywhere else in the world, people would condemn as racist any attempt to treat one section of the population as a demographic problem. Most Israelis now believe that the best way to deal with the occupied territories is unilateral withdrawal and the creation of a Palestinian entity. This state would be diminished in sovereignty, sealed off by a wall of racist segregation, and "encouraged" to look eastward. I am fairly certain that Sharon sees the future of the Palestinian entity as linked with the land east of the River Jordan. Any links between Israel and the Palestinian entity are perceived as perilous: they may lead to the evolution of a bi-national state.