Sharon Leaves Everyone Guessing

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was doing his best to dispel the impression that another disengagement plan, from the West Bank this time, was in the works.

"Yesterday a rumor spread that we were considering other plans," he told an economic forum in Tel Aviv Thursday. "We are not, we already have one: the road map. We have no better plan for the future of Israel, and I emphasize this because of the recent rumors on this subject."

The "rumors," however, were emanating from deep inside the Sharon camp. Speaking at a conference Wednesday, Eyal Arad, a senior aide to the prime minister, declared that "if we see, over time, that the impasse (with the Palestinians) continues, then even though Israel’s diplomatic situation is comfortable, we might consider turning the disengagement into an Israeli strategy. Israel would determine its borders independently."

But it was not just Arad who was talking of more unilateral measures, like Israel’s withdrawal in August from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of all the Jewish settlements there. At the same conference on strategic affairs in Tel Aviv where Arad spoke, military intelligence chief Aharon Ze’evi declared that "in the coming years, Israel will have to take more and more unilateral steps in order to advance its own interests."

So is Ariel Sharon, despite his denials, now planning more unilateral moves in the West Bank? With the prime minister having staved off a leadership challenge this week from Benjamin Netanyahu, the former finance minister and his main rival inside the ruling Likud party, he may well be in far less of a hurry to float a new diplomatic initiative right now, than if he had lost.

Netanyahu, who resigned in protest over the Gaza withdrawal, had forced a vote inside the Likud Central Committee over moving a leadership primary forward from April 2006 to November this year, in a bid to oust Sharon.

Had Netanyahu succeeded, Sharon would likely have bolted the Likud and set up a new party along with some of the more moderate members of the party. A split in the Likud would have enhanced the prospects of a far-reaching diplomatic initiative in the coming months. Sharon, at the head of a new party and free of hardline Likud members who opposed his Gaza plan, would have been more free to present another bold diplomatic initiative.

With 2006 an election year for Israel – the poll is scheduled for November – Sharon may be disinclined to embark on any new diplomatic endeavors in the next 12 months. He is also basking in the afterglow of the successful implementation of his Gaza pullout plan. Having been applauded by leaders around the world he is not under pressure, for now, to make further concessions. He has said that the onus is now on the Palestinians to deliver, and that assertion has been supported by the U.S. administration.

His associates insist that, for now, there is no logic in floating a new diplomatic initiative that involves evacuating territory, and that the goal of the disengagement was to maintain Israel’s grip on the West Bank until the Palestinian Authority implements major reforms.

Sharon’s insistence on the road map peace plan serving as the vehicle for any future progress could also be seen as an attempt by him to ensure there is none. He has made it clear that there will be no forward movement until the Palestinians fulfill one of the main stipulations of the internationally backed blueprint – disarming militant groups.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said he will not use force to confront organizations like Hamas, fearing this could spark a Palestinian civil war. If he does not, Sharon can always insist that the Palestinians have not fulfilled the first phase in the road map, and that he will not fulfill his obligation to freeze settlements until they do.

But not all circumstances mitigate against diplomatic progress. If Sharon freezes diplomatic moves for an extended period of time, he could be in danger of losing his main coalition partner, the dovish Labor Party, which wants to ensure that the Gaza withdrawal is not Israel’s last and that the evacuations extend to the West Bank.

As the general election draws closer next year, Sharon will also have to present the Israeli public with a new diplomatic horizon. The grace period he is enjoying in the wake of the Gaza pullout will have dissipated by then and the Israeli public will want to know what his plans are for the West Bank.

Since the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon has also repeated his assertion that Israel will have to continue making "painful concessions." He has spoken of retaining major settlement blocs, which would suggest that those West Bank settlements outside these blocs will ultimately be removed.

At the Tel Aviv conference Thursday, Sharon’s denials that he was hatching a new plan became increasingly vociferous. He was determined, he said, to dispel the rumors that had caused ambassadors to "line up outside the prime minister’s office asking if we have some other agenda."

Sharon’s problem is that not everyone believes his denials. Some believe that Eyal Arad, his aide, was floating a trial balloon when he spoke of turning the disengagement into "an Israeli strategy," just like Sharon’s associates did two years ago before he unveiled his Gaza disengagement plan. At the time, Sharon responded with a strenuous denial of the existence of any such plan. Sound familiar?

Read more by Peter Hirschberg