Israel wins, Sharon triumphs, Palestinians fail

The dialogues between Bush and Sharon open a new situation, with enormous consequences fro Israel, Palestina and the Catholic Church. Here is a complete and clear analysis by an Israeli expert (who asked the anonymity).

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - The exchange of statements and letters, on Wednesday, 14 April, between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon represents a definitive political victory for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. It constitutes a profound change in the political situation in the area, and a personal triumph for Premier Sharon.

Essentially this Israeli victory consists in the American President's determination that (1) Israel will not obliged to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories to its own pre-1967 border, and specifically (2) that at least the major Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, now called by the US "Israeli population centres", must be annexed to Israel in an eventual peace treaty with the Palestinians, and remain in any case part of an expanded Israeli territory.

This is arguably not only an explicit retreat from US policy since 1967, but hard to reconcile with international law. The UN Charter disallows acquisition of territory by force through war, and the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) forbids the occupying power to colonise occupied territory. A whole series of UN Security Council Resolutions following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war explicitly declare the Israeli settlements to be illegal. The United States accepted those Resolutions. In later years, the rhetoric of successive US Administrations avoided calling the settlements explicitly "illegal", but insisted that they were "obstacles to peace". Now they have become "Israeli population centres" and are legitimised completely - by the US, if not by international law or the UN.


Unilateral resolve


Thus another stage has been successfully completed in Mr. Sharon's over-all plan to "resolve" the conflict purely unilaterally, by withdrawing minor settlements and fixed Israeli military presence from densely populated Palestinian areas, keeping the rest of the occupying territories, and enclosing Palestinian population centres behind walls, fences and security barriers, as a shield from Palestinian armed action against Israelis.

This is where the announced withdrawal of the settlements and fixed army presence from the Gaza region fits in. It is not exactly an ending of Israel's belligerent occupation, since Israel will keep complete control of all border crossings, even between Gaza and Egypt, of airspace and the sea, meaning that the Gaza Strip (as it used to be called) will be described by the Palestinians, and by observers unsympathetic to the Israeli position, as simply "one large, overcrowded prison camp".

Most Israelis appear happy with Sharon's triumph in Washington. Shimon Peres, the leader of the main opposition party, has said that the plans unveiled in Washington conform "almost perfectly" to the Labour Party's own position, and it is evident that Labour may before long join the government, especially if the extreme right-wing parties leave it.

Only the "extreme left" and the "extreme right" in Israel oppose Sharon's plan. The so-called "extreme left" continues to call for negotiations and agreement with the Palestinians even now, while the extreme right (both secular and religious factions of the extreme right) oppose any sort of retreat from any part of the occupied territories, no matter how great the international political advantages.


Palestinians failure


The Palestinians are, of course, furious. In political terms, their defeat is almost as serious as their military defeat in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1947-9. Given the hyper-power status of the US, the proven impotence of the UN in front of American resolve, and the inertness and divisions in the European Union, the judgement delivered by President Bush can be said to be, to all practical effects and purposes, the last word on the subject. Of course, unsympathetic observers will say that the Palestinians alone are once more to blame for their defeat. The unhelpful attitude of President Arafat at Camp David in 2000, and in relation to the later initiative by President Clinton, and, even more so, the wave of Palestinian terror since 28 September 2000, which the Palestinian Authority has done nothing to counter (and in which many in Israel and the West believe President Arafat and parts of his apparatus to be implicated), the continuing failure to carry out urgently necessary fundamental reform in Palestinian government structures, especially the security services, the growing "entente" with Hamas etc. - all of these have made not only Israelis, but also many others in the West, and indeed many Arab governments, far too exasperated with the Palestinian Authority and its cause.

An aspect of Sharon's personal triumph is that the major shift in US foreign policy has occurred before the Israeli government itself has even approved Sharon's plans - let alone actually done anything - so that this new US policy remains in place even if Israel does not, in the end, retreat from Gaza, even the incomplete retreat proposed by Sharon. In fact, Sharon faces a referendum among his Likud Party members on 2 May, and only if he wins (against general mobilisation by the extreme right in the party) will he bring the proposal to the Government and to the Parliament. Meanwhile he is also expecting the decision by the Attorney General on whether to indict him on corruption charges, and, even if he is not indicted now, further charges are still being investigated with a view to possible indictment. If indicted, Sharon will be obliged to resign.


USA: patron of the Church?


It is still too soon to estimate the full effect of this "new order" on the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

To the extent that Palestinian Christians share the fate of the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population who are Muslims, they will certainly not reap any benefits from the new situation. In fact, the disappearance of political hope from the Palestinian horizon, is likely to increase anarchy and lawlessness  in the Palestinian territories - which include Bethlehem - and to increase the power of Hamas and Islamic extremism. Taking political hope away from the Palestinian Muslim majority  may mean delivering it into the hands of the Islamists, who are not interested in political hope but only in a terrible kind of "eschatological consummation".

In Israel, the victory of Sharon's nationalist right, and its successful cooptation of the moderate centre and centre-left, as well as the forecast of renewed dependence in parliament on fundamentalist religious parties (if the "hard right" refuses to support Sharon) do not seem likely to encourage development of a more truly pluralistic society, with adequate space for minority voices, including the Christian voice. The 'fortress mentality" symbolised by the decision to surround Israel with walls, fences or barriers, may have more far reaching consequences than simply stopping terrorists at the gate. Israel is hunkering down, physically, but perhaps also socially and culturally. In immediately concrete terms, the definitive loss of realistic political hope for a genuine peace, based on negotiation and reconciliation, may accelerate the rate of emigration of Palestinian Christians anxious to give a better life to their families, a life more secure and hopeful than available under the twin pressures of Israeli occupation and Islamist dominance. Apart from that, it is doubtful whether the Church itself will feel any consequences, except increasing difficulty in moving personnel across the lines between the Israelis and the Palestinians, something that is already happening. In addition, the Church's hope to secure her rights and freedoms (in Israel and Israeli-controlled territory)  through public bilateral accords with the State of Israel may also be challenged by the new "unilateralism", which the Israeli government could be said to have already manifested in this area too, as shown by its widely reported unilateral withdrawal from the negotiations with the Holy See, by the "clergy visa crisis" and so on. The growing tendency in Church circles to invoke U.S. intercession  with Israel may reflect such foreboding. However,  the Church can have a very reasonable expectation of U.S. support, given the potential influence of the Catholic vote, and the prominent presence of Catholics in public life.. For centuries the Church in the Holy Land was protected by France, perhaps the new "nation protectrice de l'Eglise" will have to be the United States of America.

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