- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — the Israeli politician who has done more than anyone over the past quarter-century to encourage settlement expansion — made his most explicit declaration yet of his intention to withdraw from settlements in Gaza.

In an interview with the liberal-leaning newspaper Ha’aretz, Mr. Sharon said that he had instructed his aides to prepare a plan to unilaterally withdraw from 17 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon alluded to several reasons why Israel would benefit by withdrawing from those settlements: 1) The fact that the Gaza settlements, home to 7,500 Jews, are presently a strategic burden. They are virtually surrounded by 1.3 million hostile and often violent Palestinians, and protecting them constitutes a huge political problem for Israel and a military/security headache for the Israeli army; 2) In the event that Palestinians in the future choose responsible leaders willing and able to form an independent state next to Israel, there is no serious possibility that those settlements would ever remain in Gaza.

In making his case, Mr. Sharon spoke with brutal candor. Along with the ongoing construction of a West Bank security barrier between Jewish and Arab towns, Mr. Sharon’s Gaza pullback is part of his larger plan for separation between Israelis and Palestinians. “It is my intention to carry out an evacuation — sorry, a relocation — of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold onto anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements,” Mr. Sharon said. The Israeli leader added that he is operating on the assumption “that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza.”

The withdrawal could begin in June or July. A recent poll of 500 Israelis found that 59 percent approved of Mr. Sharon’s plan, while 34 percent opposed the move.

Mr. Sharon’s political situation in the Knesset is a very different story. At least in the short term, Mr. Sharon (who may be indicted on corruption charges) is taking a monumental political gamble that could put his government in jeopardy.

On Monday, the Israeli leader got a taste of what is in store for him politically, when his government survived a pair of no-confidence votes, by 42-41 prevailing margins. Many right-of-center, pro-settlement lawmakers boycotted to protest Mr. Sharon’s position. Mr. Sharon’s Likud coalition has 68 members in the 120-member Knesset, and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has said his 19-member faction will support Mr. Sharon on the Gaza withdrawal. But Likud and Mr. Sharon deeply distrust Mr. Peres, and it is difficult to imagine such a political arrangement lasting very long.

Mr. Sharon’s separation plan offers the most realistic path to ensuring Israel’s security without foreclosing the possibility that Palestinians will be capable of governing themselves at some future time. The United States should support Mr. Sharon’s efforts to disengage from the Gaza settlements.

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