MARGARET WARNER: In a long-awaited speech today, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon threw down the gauntlet. While Israel remains committed to a U.S.-backed blueprint for negotiations, Sharon said: "If in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the road map, then Israel will initiate the unilateral step of disengagement from the Palestinians."
Under the disengagement plan, Sharon said, Israel would redeploy Israeli troops along new security lines, relocate some Jewish settlements to "reduce the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population"; and greatly accelerate the construction of the security fence separating Israel from the West Bank.
For analysis of Sharon's speech, and what's behind it, we turn to David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post. And Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir, and host of a weekly program on the Arab news channel Al-Arabiya. Welcome to you both, again.
David, the prime minister of the Palestinians today called this a threat; is that what it is?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: No. I think it's really a potential opportunity. I think you said is right, he threw down the gauntlet. The famed Israeli foreign ambassador Abba Eban said that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and in this all or nothing politic the result was tragically nothing. Sharon for the first time made it clear that he might leave part of the West Bank.
MARGARET WARNER: So is this an opportunity potentially?
HISHAM MELHEM: It is an ultimatum from Ariel Sharon to the Palestinians saying in essence either you come to the table and negotiate on my own terms or I'm going to impose those terms on the ground by fear. He's withdrawing from so-called unauthorized settlements while continuing to enlarge the existing big block settlements; he's continued to build a huge fence and that fence is not a separation fence; it's going to lead essentially to the annexation of those territories behind the wall close to Israel.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, David, what he's saying is he's going to do this in a few months unless the Palestinians do what, is this the same demand -- dismantle the terror infrastructure?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right we have been going round and round and round and round saying unless the Palestinians take actions on terrorism there is going to be no progress on this road map. The net effect is no progress, and finally Sharon is saying can't way forever; can't put the future on hold another 35 years until now and he shattered an ideological taboo. Here's the architect of the settlement movement saying Israel is going to have to take down some of the settlements and redeploy and that's highly significant.
MARGARET WARNER: So explain this in very simple terms. What he's saying if we can't reach a deal pretty soon or at least renewed serious talks. Israel is going to unilaterally redraw these borders?
DAVID MAKOVSY: Yeah. Right now he didn't say what new borders would be, and that's what's kind of a missing piece of the puzzle, so what he said was he shattered the taboo -- not all of the settlements will stay. And coming from him this means you can have a fence that will make it safe for Israel to leave and not necessarily a fence that will make it safe for Israel to stay. Those are the options that are now out there and Sharon is saying if you don't fulfill your security obligations, you can't complain if there is that Israel acts. If there is no terror, no fence.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that significant, Hisham, that the prime minister of Israel is saying to the Israeli public, if we draw this line; some of the 220,000 settlers are going to be -- he used the word both relocated and relocated to get back inside a predominantly Jewish area.
HISHAM MELHEM: He's not breaking taboos; the Israelis had to dismantle the settlement Yamit in Sinai when they signed the peace deal with the Egyptian. So there is a precedence -- it is not a new taboo.
He's saying essentially those tiny settlements surrounded by a sea of Palestinians and those groups surrounding the Palestinian urban centers will be withdrawn essentially behind the new wall that he's building.
The problem is now this is a prescription for more instability and violence because what Palestinian can accept the division of the West Bank along the incredible wall, which is eating up more Palestinian territories. So what you have is Sharon imposing a settlement while the Israelis traditionally said we are not going to impose a settlement from the international community and yet he is asking the Palestinians to accept a settlement he is imposing. This is not going to --
MARGARET WARNER: So how are the Palestinian going to react to this?
HISHAM MELHEM: They already rejected it. They will reject it. They will fight for it and unfortunately those who are working for a cease-fire from the Palestinian militant groups are going to fail now, because the Palestinians will say how are we going to renegotiate with somebody who is essentially redrawing the map creating a new border imposing in on us continuing settlement activity essentially pulling the territory from under our feet. How can you re-negotiate with a government like this? If the international community doesn't move quickly to deal with the issue they'll be more violence and instability.
MARGARET WARNER: So do you think this is essentially what's going to happen?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: First of all the Yamit summit was Sinai desert 20 years ago isn't the West Bank, because of it is much more charged because of biblical patrimony. The key question for me now that Sharon has broken the sound barrier what are we talking about a buffer fence on the western edges of the West Bank or are we talking about an encirclement fence and I think....
MARGARET WARNER: By that you mean really carves deeply to the territory of the Palestinians...
DAVID MAKOVSKY: ...And encircles the Palestinians. But basically I mean I'm finishing a study on this issue, that as it is now 85 percent of the West Bank is east of the fence where 97 percent of the Palestinians live. That sort of fence will facilitate a two-state solution and make it safer for Israel to leave. If Sharon tries to encircle the Palestinians...
HISHAM MELHEM: Which is happening right now --
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well the clear thing would be it would be a different sort of character.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean by creating these little cantons...
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Creating an enclave but that's not what the military or people of Israel are at right now. And therefore, I think the fence basically answers one question, how do you partition the two people when there is no trust that, if you get out you're safer and not more vulnerable because they don't trust Yasser Arafat.
HISHAM MELHEM: You're not partitioning the people, you are going to be continuing to rule more Palestinians behind the thick wall of barbed wires and fences and razor sharp obstacles.
The Palestinians will be divide half of the West Bank will be on the Palestinian control. This will not be a viable state and the other half will be under Israel contro. They will continue to agitate and fight the Israeli occupation and this isn't a separation wall but this is really apartheid wall.
MARGARET WARNER: So Hisham why did Sharon come up with this and why now because of the changing political climate in Israel?
HISHAM MELHEM: Just as the plan is diabolical in its own content, it's also diabolical in its timing. And Sharon now is thrown the gauntlet, not only to the Palestinians, but to his critics on the left in Israel and even some of his critics on the right in Israel. He's saying I'm initiating this move; I want you to study this thing, I'm not inactive and he'll buy time with that.
Beyond that he knows three months from now when the decisions will be taken with the Israelis that we'll be here, in election calendar in the United States where Sharon believes, he'll probably right unfortunately, that the president of the United States will be focused on the elections and maybe on Iraq, he's not going to put pressure on him. The sad part is that these developments are taking place at a time when there is a growing larger constituency for Palestinians and for Israelis -- supported by the international community -- that is is calling for a two state solution along the 1967 borders -- and you have seen this in the Geneva Accord....
MARGARET WARNER: Privately negotiated...
HISHAM MELHEM: Privately negotiated documents between active Palestinian and Israeli Palestinians. That's the tragedy taking place at this time. Sharon is trying to undermine it. Sharon rediscovered the road map. He never talked about the road map. When he accepted it he attached a long series of objections.
MARGARET WARNER: But David talk about isn't there a big discussion going on in Israel now about the demographic time bomb that something has to be done or that Israel can no longer be a Jewish and democratic state explain that.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: There is clear federal ferment happening here through a variety of initiatives and you're seeing more people come out on the security establishment and the Israelis have realized within a decade the Jews are going to be a minority, not in Israel proper but Israel, West Bank, Gaza altogether. And, therefore, they're saying, if you're going to wait for Arafat to ever do anything against terrorism you can wait for another 100 years. Israel doesn't have that sort of time and therefore if it needs to kind of disengage from the Palestinians and yet feel safer not more vulnerable it has to come up with its own initiative. That sort of bubbling of ferment I think is the domestic political context to Sharon's speech today.
MARGARET WARNER: You don't dispute, do you, that in fact, Sharon said today himself ... if he goes forward this way, the Palestinians will get a lot less he said than they would get in a negotiation.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: He's under attack. The right wing thinks he's a sellout -- that he's turned into a left wing communist by going forward, by renouncing his whole orthodoxy essentially and he says you're giving the prize to terrorism because the Islamic Jihad unlike what Hisham said -- they see it as a victory they got Sharon to say he will actually leave settlements. So Sharon I think is trying to quiet those critics and saying it would be better to do a negotiation and give less otherwise but Ithink that's more for domestic political purposes.
MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, literally five seconds from both of you, the White House had an ambiguous response, doesn't want unilateral steps, did you expect the white house to play a role in this?
HISHAM MELHEM: This ambiguity on the part of the United States government is very negative because they say they don't want the wall but they vote on the United Nations against measures against it. They say we want the settlement to stop but don't do anything about it.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I don't expect a big change in the White House and I think quietly this administration is happy that Ariel Sharon has kind of broken this ideological barrier opening the way for more positive moves in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: Hisham and David, thank you both, once again.