- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

A small army of Middle Eastern experts, former ambassadors to Israel and/or Arab capitals, think tank specialists, special envoys under the last five administrations, former secretaries of state, European Union foreign affairs ministers, all have urged rapid resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. They perceive a golden opportunity with a near perfect alignment of favorable stars that seem to bode well for peace.

The stars are the peaceful elections for a new Palestinian leader; the prospect of a fresh Likud-Labor coalition in Israel that should temper Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hawkish policies; a forthcoming Israeli withdrawal from Gaza; and a U.S. president who can rebuild Arab trust since he need not worry about re-election, which means he can afford to displease the powerful Israeli lobby, now under FBI investigation for alleged receipt of top secret Pentagon documents.

Alas, Middle Eastern political forecasting invariably seems to make astrology look respectable.

After the next round of jaw-jaw, a viable Palestinian state will still be as elusive as before. The Palestinians have a new leader to replace Abu Ammar, the nom de guerre of the late Yasser Arafat. And if President Mahmoud Abbas (a k a Abu Mazen) can dodge what are bound to be multiple assassination plots and attempts on his life, he may still emerge a voice for reason.

But reason in Palestinian parlance does not mean accepting a less than viable state. Mr. Abbas will still have to contend with extremists from Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Fatah militants from his own party have already challenged him. And the common thread among all his detractors, who look forward to the day between 2010 and 2015 when there will be more Arabs than Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, is opposition to Israel’s very existence.

Mr. Abbas wears a suit in sharp contrast with Arafat’s fatigues and checkered keffyah headdress. But an Arafat crony, Mr. Abbas has a checkered past, including a Holocaust denial doctoral dissertation linking Zionism and Nazism (which he later recanted as the lucubrations of an immature youth). During the election campaign, he still called Israel “the Zionist enemy.”

On the Israeli side, only a few months ago Mr. Sharon’s former chief of staff and close friend Dov Weisglass confirmed what had long been denied: the policy is a subterfuge to pre-empt a Palestinian state by ensuring its stillbirth. Thus, the two-state solution Mr. Bush advocates was dead on arrival. Mr. Sharon has now asked Mr. Weisglass to be his link with Mr. Abbas.

At the very least, a “viable” state means (1) a West Bank free of most of Israel’s 140 settlements, where some 240,000 Israeli settlers are still building and expanding, and (2) a capital in Arab East Jerusalem, now isolated and deprived by Israeli settlements of direct access to West Bank Palestinian towns.

Then there is the $2 billion combined wall-cum-ditch-cum-electrified fence that snakes deep into the West Bank to (1) keep terrorists out of Israel and (2) protect Israeli settlements close to the old pre-1967 war border.

Gaza, shorn of Israeli settlements, would remain under Israeli control. IDF troops will continue surrounding Gaza and controlling its airport and seaport.

But even in a no-brainer like Gaza, where settlers require 50,000 IDF and police to protect them from 1.2 million Palestinians, evacuation will be politically exhausting and physically exacting for Mr. Sharon and his coalition partners.

Mr. Sharon’s Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched a trial balloon in a Jerusalem Post interview, saying settlers would face further dismantling irrespective of negotiations with the Palestinians. It didn’t take Mr. Sharon long to shoot it down.

More than half of the 240,000 Israeli settlers have said they would physically resist “deportation”; 42 percent are prepared to break the law. And 12 Knesset members have pledged to “prevent with our bodies the immoral and inhumane expulsion of thousands of settlers who are heroes and pioneers.”

Settlers have taken to wearing orange Stars of David to recall the yellow stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear before their deportation to the death camps.

Israeli soldiers with family members living in settlements to be evacuated will be excused of duty in the occupied territories. Even Gaza will be tough evacuation work for the army and police. Said Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi: “The evacuation will be hard to execute, but if it’s not executed, this will be dangerous for Israeli democracy.” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the army “will enforce the law with determination and without compromise.”

The Israel Policy Forum’s Roberta Fahn Schoffman reported Mr. Sharon’s “leverage is shaky at best.” After the prime minister lost “an important Knesset Law Committee vote (during the last week of the year) on the evacuation and compensation bill, which included strong punitive clauses against individuals who resist or disrupt evacuation by force,” Bentzi Lieberman, chairman of the Council of Settlers, called the measures draconian and denounced the government’s legislative conduct as a ‘gang rape of democracy.’ ”

Mr. Schoffman then posits Israel’s real dilemma, which is an echo from Islam’s fundamentalists: What represents the highest authority, the rule of law or the rule of religion?

Professor Shlomo Kaniel at Bar Ilan University’s School of Education, and a resident of Neveh Tzuf settlement, defines the ensuing confrontation as a momentous clash of values: “On the settlers’ scale of values, settlement in the Land of Israel is a central ethos that encompasses all spheres of their life, a value that overshadows all other values.”

The test of authority is “upon us,” say fundamentalist Jewish settlers. If the rabbis ultimately give a green light to violently fight disengagement, “Heaven help us,” said one.

Elections and an incipient civil war in Iraq, no prospect of an independent Palestinian state, al Qaeda’s campaign to undermine Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, and the creeping nuclearization of Iran, all point to a deepening Middle Eastern crisis in 2005.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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