The year 2003 has been a difficult and frustrating one so far as making progress toward peace between Israel and its neighbors is concerned. When it comes to the local balance of power, there is but one nation that has the capability to exercise militarily dominance in the Middle East: Israel, the region's only superpower and lone democracy. Considering the neighborhood, that's a good thing. But the reality is that for much of the Israeli public, there is no small amount of disillusionment with the status quo, particularly when it comes to controlling lands such as the West Bank and Gaza, in which Palestinians constitute the overwhelming majority of the population.
One such indication (which draws considerable attention in the Western media) is the complaining from Israeli war veterans over the continued occupation of the West Bank. A more powerful indicator -- one often glossed over or ignored in the Western press -- can be heard in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's latest declaration that the ideology of Eretz Yisrael (the idea that all of the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River should be in Israeli hands) is no longer sustainable given the demographic and geopolitical realities in the region. Given the fact that, for the better part of the past quarter-century, Mr. Sharon has been perhaps Israel's leading proponent of this ideology, these statements represent a political sea change in the way the Israeli center-right, currently the dominant political force in the country, approaches a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
If Palestinian terrorism continues unabated -- making impossible the implementation of President Bush's road map for Mideast peace -- Mr. Sharon said earlier this month, Israel will unilaterally redeploy its forces along new, more defensible security lines. This would leave an indeterminate number of small settlements outside those areas of the West Bank under Israeli security control, which would effectively force them to be evacuated. Moreover, Mr. Sharon added -- in his most explicit renunciation of the Eretz Yisrael concept yet: "There will be no construction behind the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements."
Israeli settlers -- once Mr. Sharon's staunchest supporters -- have reacted angrily to the prime minister's remarks, using terms like " a surrender to terror," a "betrayal" and a "stab in the back" to characterize them. But the Israeli electorate as a whole appears deeply conflicted about the prime minister's proposal. A poll conducted last week for the newspaper Ma'ariv found the Israeli public opposed by a 51-37 percent margin to unilaterally evacuating settlements if Israel fails to reach an agreement with the Palestinians; on the other hand, another poll conducted earlier last week found Israelis supporting Mr. Sharon's plan by a 59-22 percent margin.
Israelis, in short, are genuinely torn. While they are tired of occupying a land with millions of Palestinian residents, they understand that the Palestinians have refused to take yes for an answer when it comes to getting an independent state next to Israel. In 2000, President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat a contiguous state in 97 percent of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip. Mr. Arafat rejected that offer and launched a war of terror that has claimed thousands of lives.
Since that time, Mr. Bush has put forward his road map for Mideast peace, which requires that Israel dismantle wildcat settlement outposts and the PA dismantle the terrorist infrastructure operating in areas under its control. Israel has started to remove the outposts. Unfortunately, the PA has done virtually nothing to carry out its own commitment. The new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Korei, has been demanding that Israel remove its West Bank security barrier (variously described as a "wall" or a "fence") to keep out suicide bombers. Specifically, Mr. Korei objects to the fact that the barrier is being built inside the West Bank, and not on the Green Line separating the West Bank from Israel.
Notwithstanding that the barrier would never have gone up if the PA had carried out the commitments it made during the Oslo peace process to prevent terrorism, Mr. Korei's argument is unpersuasive on yet another point. There is nothing sacrosant about the Green Line. That border is the armistice line from the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, in which the Arabs tried unsuccessfully to destroy the nascent Jewish state. Indeed, the precarious nature of that border for Israel led Egyptian strongman Gamel Abdel-Nasser to provoke the 1967 war by closing the Strait of Tiran and massing troops in the Sinai -- a war which ended with Israel in control of the entire West Bank. If Mr. Korei and the Palestinians want a peace settlement that will result in an independent state in the coming years -- instead of an Israeli-imposed wall -- they need to take action to uproot the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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