Analysis: Sharon changes Mid-East equation
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent
The dust has settled a bit after Mr Sharon's visit to Washington and it is clear that his plan has produced one of those
Middle East moments when everything has changed.
It does not mean that the conflict will not continue. It obviously will. But the terms of the conflict have been altered.
The so-called roadmap to peace, the plan drawn up by the quartet of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, had already been
exposed as unrealistic. It has now in reality been rolled up.
Claims by President George W Bush and the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair that somehow the roadmap is being implemented by
the Sharon plan cannot be taken too literally.
What they mean is that negotiations can and should continue.
But it will be on a new basis.
The Palestinians will have to accept as facts two principles which they wanted to be the subject of negotiations.
One is the permanence of major Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
The other is that Palestinian refugees from earlier wars will not be allowed back into what is now Israel.
This is a major blow for the Palestinians, as Mr Sharon, in candid remarks before he left for Washington, said it was designed
He even suggested that it could preclude a Palestinian state.
It is possible that he could be wrong on that, but certainly if the Palestinians eventually choose to talk on the new basis,
their state will be a small and fragmented place.
What Palestinians could gain
The US and UK will argue that the Palestinians have gained something.
They will get an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the major Israeli settlements named as permanent do not include many
others whose future is presumably for negotiation.
They will also argue that many small and fragmented states have done rather well.
Many Palestinians, however, might not choose to talk but to fight.
Other defining moments
The Sharon plan and the Bush backing for it stand comparison with other moments when great powers have helped shape the
politics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
In 1917, the then superpower Great Britain, through the Declaration named after the Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, promised
a "national home for the Jewish people in Palestine".
The Balfour Declaration, bitterly recalled to any British visitor to any Palestinian refugee camp, set the scene for large
scale Jewish immigration and settlement while supposedly safeguarding the "civil and religious rights of the non- Jewish communities".
This dual aim proved impossible to sustain and in 1939, Britain reshaped the terms again with a White Paper which severely
restricted Jewish immigration for five years and then gave Palestinians a veto on any more, thereby aiming to prevent the
emergence of a State of Israel.
This plan, too, eventually collapsed and Britain withdrew.
Then the Israelis started creating further facts on the ground.
Mr Sharon played his own significant role in creating those facts, in peace and in war.
He has sometime been successful. His crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war with Egypt, which threatened the encirclement
of the Egyptian army, is already a classic text in the history books.
But not always. His invasion of Lebanon in 1982, designed to end Palestinian resistance, is also a classic for different
reasons. It failed.
It is not possible to say whether his latest plan will work or not. And of course what works for one side does not necessarily
work for the other.
But it has created new political facts which will have to be taken into account.
Mr Sharon is doing as a politician what he did as a soldier. He is trying to define the battlefield.
It is also possible, probable even, that nothing will happen diplomatically and that Israel will withdraw into a Biblical
type "stronghold" of the type favoured by the Old Testament warrior Gideon, whose exploits provided the inspiration for the
modern Israeli military.
The barrier now being put up by the Israeli government between Israelis and Palestinians is perhaps evidence that this
is already happening.
Analysis: Drawing Israel's borders
Israel plans to withdraw about 9,500 settlers and the troops that
protect them from the Gaza Strip in mid-August 2005. Israel will maintain control of Gaza's borders, coastline and airspace.
Four villages in the West Bank will also be evacuated.
The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza - and the wider disengagement plan of which it is part - represents a major shift in the
political landscape of the Middle East of a kind that is seen only every decade or so.
It remains to be seen whether it also represents an opportunity to clear the way for a final two-state agreement or is
an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to take matters into his own hands and draw Israel's final borders unilaterally.
Given the way that facts on the ground in the Middle East tend to determine the politics, the betting has to be that, without
a major push by the United States and major concessions by each side, Mr Sharon's circling of the wagons will be the shape
of things to come for the next decade.
At the end of the disengagement process, Mr Sharon will have got out of Gaza, often regarded as an optional extra even
by settlers who think of the West Bank as Judea and Samaria and Israel's by right either by gift from God or by right of conquest
He will have evacuated four small settlements in the northern West Bank but will have consolidated existing major settlement
blocs (Ariel, Maale Adumim and others), which the Bush administration now accepts will not be given up.
He will also have constructed a barrier, some of it encroaching into what is regarded by the rest of the world as Palestinian
territory, which will became a new de facto border or at least a line of demarcation.
East Jerusalem, sought by the Palestinians as their capital, will be included within it.
About 10% of land beyond the "green line" that marks the borders between 1949 and 1967 will be enclosed by the barrier,
which is in parts a wall and in parts a fence.
It came as a surprise that Mr Sharon should have moved in this way.
Aluf Benn, diplomatic editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine in May that he had been
wrong about Ariel Sharon in an earlier essay in 2002.
"I underestimated both his political survivability and his willingness to break away from the status quo," Mr Benn said.
However, Mr Benn was not entirely wrong.
"The signs had been there all along; even my Foreign Affairs article mentioned: 'Israel may decide to draw its permanent
borders unilaterally and lock up the Palestinians behind fences.' But if I could imagine that Sharon would want to hurt the
Palestinians, the notion that the former 'bulldozer' of the Israeli settlement project would tear down his life creation was
And yet, one must remember that Mr Sharon was a general and at heart still seeks the decisive manoeuvre that brings victory.
One can see that at play here.
His history is one of the big move - from his controversial command of Unit 101 against Palestinians in the West Bank in
the 1950s, to his unauthorised attack in the Mitla Pass in the war of 1956, to his war-winning crossing of the Suez Canal
in 1973, to his invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
In the disengagement plan, he is showing as much original thinking in defence as he did in attack.
He has a strong pragmatic streak and it worth remembering that by no means all Israeli settlers are inspired by religion.
I met Israel's then Minister of Science, Professor Yuval Ne'eman, at a settlement opening on some remote West Bank hilltop
in the mid-1980s. We were sitting in a makeshift synagogue made out of a tent and I asked him if he was in favour of settlements
for religious reasons. He replied that he was an atheist and wanted them for "national reasons". Israel, he said, needed them
as a barrier.
Visions of a Jewish state
It is in keeping with this philosophy of security that Mr Sharon has put forward his plan. Security, in his view, has been
redefined since the 1980s and now requires a repositioning of Israeli lines.
It is not just attacks by Palestinians that have led to this re-thinking.
There is the demographic factor. If Israel did nothing, it would be faced by 2025 with a Palestinian Arab majority in the
territory it controls between the sea and the River Jordan.
Graham Usher, Jerusalem correspondent for the Economist magazine said recently: "Sharon has confronted the dilemma that
Ben Gurion confronted in 1948 and that dilemma Ben Gurion summed up very clearly: 'We either have a Jewish state without the
land of Israel or we have the land of Israel without a Jewish state.'
"What Ben Gurion chose was the Jewish state. Sharon believed he could have both. He now realises he can't. That is why
he is in the process of repartitioning the West Bank."
The question following the Gaza withdrawal and the completion of the disengagement or separation plan is whether negotiations
can take place with the Palestinians leading to an overall agreement.
Is Gaza a way back to the so-called road map which draws up a procedure for negotiations or it will be Gaza first and Gaza
One cannot be sanguine about this.
There are so many uncertainties. How strong will Hamas become in Gaza in elections that have to be held in due course?
Is each side even ready for real talks? What about the basic Palestinian demands - over East Jerusalem for example, soon to
be behind the barrier? What about Israeli demands for security?
One recalls that not so long ago, in 2000, under President Bill Clinton, the Israelis and Palestinians were actually negotiating
control of the last 100 metres around the heart of the Old City.
That is so far away now.
And yet President Bush has, for the first time, laid down that it is US policy to have a Palestinian state. How far will
he seek to implement this in the last years of his last term?