[[ Jerusalem Times : Opinion ]]


September 16, 2005


This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

Sharon in the UN

Ariel Sharon, farmer, warrior, political leader, and statesman was welcomed at the United Nations in New York this week with cheers and red carpets reserved for heroes. Sharon, cashing in on the success of the disengagement from Gaza reveled in his new found fame, flashed smiles and hand shakes on every passing foreign leader. Knowing of his success in the international arena, Sharon chose to use his international appeal as the platform for addressing the center of the Israeli political map where more than 60% of the Israeli public dwells. In what Member of Knesset Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, the leader of the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox party Degel Hatorah called “the most Jewish speech ever given by an Israeli Prime Minister”, Sharon clearly laid down his platform for the political party he intends to lead in the next elections. Speaking in Hebrew, Sharon emphasized over and over again his Jewish roots and the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel:


I arrived here from Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for over 3,000 years, and the undivided and eternal capital of the State of Israel.


I stand before you at the gate of nations as a Jew and as a citizen of the democratic, free and sovereign State of Israel, a proud representative of an ancient people, whose numbers are few, but whose contribution to civilization and to the values of ethics, justice and faith, surrounds the world and encompasses history.  The Jewish people have a long memory, the memory which united the exiles of Israel for thousands of years: a memory which has its origin in God’s commandment to our forefather Abraham: “Go forth!” and continued with the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai and the wanderings of the children of Israel in the desert, led by Moses on their journey to the promised land, the land of Israel.


The land of Israel is precious to me, precious to us, the Jewish people, more than anything.  Relinquishing any part of our forefathers’ legacy is heartbreaking, as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea.  Every inch of land, every hill and valley, every stream and rock, is saturated with Jewish history, replete with memories.  The continuity of Jewish presence in the Land of Israel never ceased.  Even those of us who were exiled from our land, against their will, to the ends of the earth – their souls, for all generations, remained connected to their homeland, by thousands of hidden threads of yearning and love, expressed three times a day in prayer and songs of longing.


The Land of Israel is the open Bible, the written testimony, the identity and right of the Jewish people.  Under its skies, the prophets of Israel expressed their claims for social justice, and their eternal vision for alliances between peoples, in a world which would know no more war.  Its cities, villages, vistas, ridges, deserts and plains preserve as loyal witnesses its ancient Hebrew names.  Page after page, our unique land is unfurled, and at its heart is united Jerusalem, the city of the Temple upon Mount Moriah, the axis of the life of the Jewish people throughout all generations, and the seat of its yearnings and prayers for 3,000 years.  The city to which we pledged an eternal vow of faithfulness, which forever beats in every Jewish heart: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning!”


I say these things to you because they are the essence of my Jewish consciousness, and of my belief in the eternal and unimpeachable right of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel…. In a few days time on the Hebrew calendar, the New Year will begin, the 5,766th year since the Creation.  According to Jewish belief, the fates of people and nations are determined at the New Year by the Creator – to be spared or to be doomed.  May the Holy One, blessed be He, determine that this year, our fate and the fate of our neighbors is peace, mutual respect and good neighborly relations.


From this distinguished podium, on behalf of the people of Israel, I wish all the people of the world a happy New Year.


Sharon then turned his attention to his Likud supporters who backed his disengagement move and to the left side of the political map and stated: The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land.  The Palestinians will always be our neighbors.  We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them.  They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.


Sharon went far beyond what any political observer would have expected just a couple of years ago, but he fell far short of what the Palestinians wanted to hear. PA Minister for Negotiations Dr. Saeb Arikat stated that the Palestinians are ready to return to the negotiating table and to address all of the outstanding issues, including Jerusalem and refugees and were greatly disappointed that Sharon did not make a commitment to negotiating with the Palestinians. Instead, the Palestinians said that Sharon emphasized in his speech that Israel will continue to construct its separation barrier annexing more Palestinian land, that Israel will continue its control over Gaza despite its withdrawal by not allowing Palestinian full control over its international borders and airspace and that Israel is continuing its construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and in Gaza. In short, they say that Sharon has come a long way, but has not gone the distance required to end the conflict.


Sharon, apparently in full coordination with President Bush has now placed the onus on the Palestinians “Now it is the Palestinians’ turn to prove their desire for peace.  The end of Israeli control over and responsibility for the Gaza Strip allows the Palestinians, if they so wish, to develop their economy and build a peace-seeking society, which is developed, free, law-abiding, transparent, and which adheres to democratic principles.  The most important test the Palestinian leadership will face is in fulfilling their commitment to put an end to terror and its infrastructures, eliminate the anarchic regime of armed gangs, and cease the incitement and indoctrination of hatred towards Israel and the Jews.”


What the Palestinians do now in Gaza will determine to a large extent the amount of pressure that will be applied to Sharon from the Israeli public and from the United States regarding any future Israeli moves towards further disengagements and withdrawals. This is especially important now regarding the transference of areas of the northern West Bank to full Palestinian control.


Sharon’s Political Future


As the date of the meeting of the Likud Central Council comes closer it seems that the polls are moving in Sharon’s favor.  There are rumors being floated that Netanyahu may actually remove his request for advancing the internal primaries in favor of reaching a compromise on setting an agreed date for selecting the new Likud party leader.  As Netanyahu is demonstrating cold feet in light of his possible loss, Sharon too is faced by a dilemma. If the polls indicated a clear loss for Sharon, he would probably advance his plans for creating a new political home in the center of the Israeli map.  It would then be easy for Sharon to claim that the Likud was taken over by the extreme right wing that is no longer representative of the real Likud values and of Israeli society.  Now with a more than possible Sharon victory in the Likud Central Council, Sharon has to decide if he will remain in a party, that when the time comes will elect future MK’s, will select the MK’s which demonstrated the greatest opposition to Sharon’s policies.  Internal Likud polls show that the MK’s with the highest popularity are the leaders of the opposition to Sharon: Landau, Rivlin, Gideon Saar, etc. This is not the kind of party that Sharon wants to take to elections.


From inside and behind the scenes information, I know that Sharon’s people are ready to launch a new political party the very moment that Sharon gives the green light. Supporters and funders have been lined up (this time keeping within the restrictions of political party fundraising). All that is missing in the plan to reshape the Israeli political map is the decision of Sharon to leave the Likud. Almost all (if not all) political analysts and commentators in Israel (including me) believe that the next Prime Minister of Israel will be Ariel Sharon.  Potential political partners from many different camps are lining up behind the scenes to join in. The person who will decide their political future is none other than Ariel Sharon.


Rafah Gaza, Rafah Egypt


Palestinian ability to control Gaza proved to be next to impossible this week and the impact of that on Israeli policy makers is potentially very dramatic. The negotiations between the sides facilitated by the office of the Special Envoy, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, seem to be bogged down by Israeli demands to maintain control over goods and some people from entering Gaza. In light of the “free movement” of thousands of people through the Gaza-Egypt border opened up without any attempts to prevent them by the Palestinian Authority and by the Egyptians, Israeli demands are likely to harden in the ongoing negotiations. What seems to be a complete failure of coordination between Israel, the Palestinians, and Egypt, people and contraband flowed into Gaza without any control. Palestinians have reported that the black market prices for weapons in Gaza took a nose dive because of the sudden flood of new “merchandise” in the market. Many Palestinians who visited Al Arish towards the end of the week left disappointed because the stores there were completely emptied – in high demand were cigarettes, alcohol and other heavily taxed items. The former Head of the Southern Command of the IDF Dr. Yom Tov Samia stated that in just a few days more weapons were smuggled into Gaza than in ten years of smuggling through the illegal tunnels in Rafah. Israeli crime prevention experts have spoken about thousands of kilos of illegal drugs that have also been smuggled that will probably end up in Israel.


In the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on passages, Israel has consistently stated that the Palestinians are unable to control the passages. Interestingly, Israeli negotiators believed that the Egyptians could be trusted for dealing with security issues on the Egypt side of the border.  This was a dramatic shift in the Israeli position which absolutely rejected any third party. The Egyptians had only deployed some 250 of the 750 border police that the sides agreed to, prior to the Israeli evacuation. Some 500 of the border police had been sent home for a short holiday before taking their new positions. The Egyptian border police who did take up their positions, stood by helplessly, as thousands of Palestinians crossed the “border”, without any ability to stop the flow. Palestinian Authority personnel stated that they had no ability to stop the people from exercising their first experience with freedom in 38 years. Israelis involved in the negotiations with the border crossing issue told me that they were warned by the GSS (General security Service – Shabak) that what in fact happened would happen.  There should be no one who was surprised by the loss of control and the chaos that ensued with the Israeli evacuation, but reactions of surprise were clearly evident in the Israeli reporting of the events.


The main issue of security control was pushed to the back burner by the Israeli negotiators who were pushed by Israeli customs directors that rejected any free movement of goods into Gaza. As we say in Hebrew, their work was undertaken by other righteous people – the customs department. As security and customs checks are unified, when the security people witnessed the determination of the customs people to take up the battle, they went to the sidelines. Now the security issue will re-emerge as paramount in witness to the enormous amount of newly smuggled weapons and perhaps terrorist elements. This will certainly complicate the negotiations.


My fear now is that policy decisions will be made in the negotiations based on the chaos of the last days.  If the Palestinian Authority and the Egyptians do not take control immediately, it will be difficult to imagine any Israeli flexibility in the conclusions of the negotiations.  This is crucial because it will impact on the decisions made concerning the future of the Gaza seaport and airport.


On the side, it should be mentioned that one of the underlying interests not voiced in the opposition of Israeli custom officials to allow any third party role in customs control concerns the realization that if a private international company can do it in Gaza, why not privatize the Israeli customs, in lines with other Israeli economic policies towards privatization. The Customs guild in Israel remains one of the strongest professional guild left in-tact and with a great deal of power.


Bagatz – The Israeli Supreme Court


In a unanimous decision issued by nine Justices, the Israeli supreme court chose to adhere to international law and to break it at the same time. The court instructed the Government to dismantle and to rebuild the separation barrier suffocating five Palestinian villages in the so-called Alfei Menashe finger. In its unanimous decision, the court discussed the fact that the “Judea and Samaria” areas are held by Israel in belligerent occupation.  The law which applies in these areas is controlled by public international law regarding belligerent occupation. Yet in direct breach of the same international law, the Court recognized that Israel’s military command is authorized to erect a separation fence in order to protect the lives and safety of Israeli settlers in the Judea and Samaria area, for two reasons: first, regulation 43 of The Hague Regulations authorizes the military commander to take all steps necessary to ensure security.  This authority is not conditional upon the question whether Israeli settlement upholds international law – a question on which the Court took no stand.  Second, Israelis living in the area held under Israel's control in belligerent occupation are entitled to the constitutional rights which the Basic Laws and Israeli common law grant to every person within Israel. 


The Court also criticized the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice at the Hague for not sufficiently taking into account Israel’s security needs in its decision. So, although the Court did take serious note of the International Court’s opinion on the violation of the human rights of the Palestinian affected by the barrier, the Israeli Court threw out the viewpoint that the entire separation barrier is illegal under international law.


The decision of the Court will have direct impact on future developments.  The changing of the line of the barrier required by the decision will be implemented and will bring about an immediate change in plans for the barrier’s line in other areas such as Gush Eztion, around Jerusalem, surrounding Ariel and in the south of the West Bank.  The line of the barrier will move more towards the green line and will increase the possibilities for movement for Palestinians who live in the affected areas. The Court’s decision will also increase the determination of Sharon and his Government to build and develop the areas protected by the barrier. So while the protectors of civil rights, such as the petitioners to the Court – the Association for Civil Right in Israel, have reason to celebrate, there are equal reasons for concern.


A head’s-up on a future point of conflict


Writing in today’s Haaretz, veteran security affairs journalist Zeev Schiff warned that if the Palestinians now construct a sewage pipeline to the Mediterranean the new Israeli desalination plant in Ashkelon will have to be shut down.  This is presented a major strategic threat to Israel and if need be, Schiff warns, Israel would have to take physical actions to prevent the construction of the pipeline.  Thank you, Mr. Schiff, for putting this issue on the radar screens.  It is essential that the Palestinians deal with sewage issues in Gaza and in the West Bank immediately. The sewage in the Palestinian territories is a direct threat to the environment which is shared by Israelis and Palestinians.


I always wonder why, as occupier, Israel did not seem to care about the environmental issues in the occupied territories, and only when the Palestinians get control over these areas, the issues become apparent.  Environmental issues must be dealt with cooperatively. I have already suggested that 2006 be declared the Year of Our Shared Environment and that Israelis and Palestinians work together in cooperation to preserve and sustain the common environment of this land that we both claim to love. Rather than threatening, it is time to work together.  These issues of mutual concern must be placed high on the agenda of both Israel and Palestine. The international donor community should also use its leverage to get the sides to cooperation and use the common environmental concerns as a tool for peace building.