- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to announce tomorrow Israel’s decision to unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip and certain West Bank settlements if there is no progress on the U.S.-backed “road map” peace program.

The planned retreat to more defensible borders, partial details of which appeared in Israeli newspapers yesterday, is a stunning departure for the Israeli leader most intimately involved in creating the settlements.

“All the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip will be evacuated. At the end of the process, isolated settlements in Judea and Samaria will be evacuated,” the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported yesterday, using the biblical names for the West Bank.

While there is a widespread understanding that Israel will have to evacuate the Gaza Strip as part of any peace agreement, any announcement about the scope and size of a withdrawal from the West Bank will carry heavy political risks.

“The assumption is for the first time [Mr. Sharon] is going to name names,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Evacuating settlements will end finally the Zionist dream of a single Israeli state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River and open the door to a more realistic discussion about the boundaries of a future Palestinian state.

“By even taking down one settlement, Sharon creates a baseline where it is no longer taboo, and that is the key,” Mr. Makovsky said. “Once that principle is established, then we can talk about at least provisional borders.”

Faced with the economic and psychological toll of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and a growing realization that Jews could soon become a minority in the territory they control, the Israeli government has for weeks been dropping hints that it will act unilaterally if talks with Palestinians fail to resume.

There are diminishing expectations in Washington and in Israel that the road map negotiated by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations is going to get any meaningful traction as long as Yasser Arafat controls the Palestinian political process.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said repeatedly that withdrawal is an option, despite protests from the Bush administration that unilateral decisions by Israel would complicate the creation of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Olmert shocked his Likud Party this month by proposing to abandon some of the least defensible settlements and establish an Israeli-Palestinian partition before Arabs outnumber Jews.

The remark appeared to have been driven by a growing fear that the Palestinians, rather than demand their own state, instead will insist on full voting rights in all those areas under Israeli control.

With statisticians predicting that Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan within a few decades, that would mean that Israel could no longer exist as a democratic Jewish state.

That concern has become a factor in deciding the route of a security barrier being built in the West Bank. Planners hope to draw in as many Jewish settlements as possible while minimizing the number of Palestinians on the Israeli side of the wall.

“This is like finding the golden line: minimizing the Arab population joining Israel while protecting those Jews sitting in the settlements,” said Gabriel Weinmann, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and a department chairman at Haifa University.

But Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, insisted that the permanent border would be determined by the road map peace process, not by the barrier.

“The fence is reversible,” he said. “The fence is to save lives. The fence is not a political border.”

Israel’s demographic problem has been aggravated by the three-year Palestinian uprising, which has sent Israeli immigration plummeting to a 14-year low, with just 21,780 new residents this year. Government and private organizations are working feverishly to reverse that trend.

“Immigration is vital,” said Rabbi Joshua Fass, the head of Nefesh Bnefesh, an organization dedicated to facilitating the immigration of Jews to Israel.

“We are faced with two options — revitalize our efforts to attract the diaspora, or be faced with the scary realization that our borders will not be dependent on security or safety, but rather on demographics,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Israel.

Israeli authorities are stepping up efforts to attract young U.S. professionals to immigrate. Mr. Fass said many young professional North American Jews are interested in moving to Israel, determined to send a message that terrorism must not be victorious.

“Some want to strengthen democracy, or use their talents to fuel the Jewish community, and others [are interested in immigrating] as it’s a very strong message to terrorists.”

Israel’s population is estimated at 6.4 million, and the occupied Palestinian territories have roughly 3.6 million. By 2020, according to Joseph Chamie of the United Nations’ population division, Israel is projected to have 8.2 million people, and the Palestinian territories about 6.1 million. The two areas are expected to reach parity around 2040.

“There is no other solution. You have to partition or you are outnumbered, and that’s the end of the Jewish state,” said Amatzia Baram of the University of Haifa’s history department.

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