Road Map to Grand Apartheid?

Jerusalem -- The best way to understand just how Ariel Sharon plans to crumple and fold the road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace is to get out on the roads of the West Bank. Drive east from Jerusalem. Pass the stone-faced apartment buildings of Ma'aleh Adumim, a suburb of 25,000 that is the largest single Israeli settlement in the territories. Before Jericho, turn left onto a two-lane strip of asphalt that rises and plunges, in a tangle of stomach-wrenching switchbacks, through the desolate hills of the Judean Desert. To the side of the road is the settlement of Alon, a cluster of stone houses and mobile homes where several hundred Israelis live.

Keep going north. A sign points to Ein Prat -- an "outpost" where a single family of settlers lives in a house built in the time of British rule. A short distance beyond is another outpost. The place is called Ma'aleh Hagit -- a handful of mobile homes, a water tank, a power line that loops around the hilltop to feed the perimeter lights. An army jeep stands by a plastic swing set and slide; a pair of soldiers stand guard over the three or four families that populate the place -- though under Israel's own laws, the settlers' presence is apparently illegal, outside the bounds of any government-approved settlement.

Up the road is the outpost of Mitzpeh Danny, home to another few families. Turn west, toward the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Al-Birah, and you reach Migron, a year-and-a-half-old Israeli outpost that began with a guard watching over a cell-phone antenna. Now mobile homes cover a hilltop. On the ridge beyond, you can see the red-tiled roofs that are the mark of older settlements.

I've watched settlements grow for years. Yet the sheer physical spread of the settlers' presence on the ridges of the West Bank today is still stunning. Not only have established Israeli communities grown but clumps of mobile homes now mark hilltop after hilltop between them. According to the Peace Now movement's Settlement Watch monitoring project, since 1996 more than 100 outposts have been established -- tiny settlements, created on the cheap in apparent defiance of government policy.

But the defiance is only apparent. Ariel Sharon gave a major push to the outpost effort in 1998, when, as foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's government, he publicly urged settlers to "grab more hills, expand the territory." "Everything that's grabbed, will be in our hands," he explained, and the rest of the West Bank would end up in Palestinian hands. About two-thirds of the outposts have been established since March 2001, when Sharon became prime minister -- though the official guidelines of the government formed then, and of the new one formed this year, state that there will be no new settlements.

Sharon has occasionally allowed the army to dismantle an outpost, but he has also allowed more to go up. According to a recent report in the daily Ha'aretz, Sharon regularly holds nighttime meetings with Ze'ev Hever, head of Amana, a key organization devoted to establishing settlements, with the two studying maps together.

Sharon's love of maps is legendary. As the architect of settlement efforts since 1977, Sharon has had a consistent approach to the placement of new Israeli communities in the territories, as I've described previously in these pages. [See "A Belief in Force," April 8, 2002.] Sharon uses settlements to control the high ground between Palestinian communities, fragmenting Palestinian-populated land.

His success was demonstrated during the Oslo Accords process: Then- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to Palestinian self-rule for an interim period, putting off the fate of the settlements as a bargaining chip for negotiations on a final-status agreement. Settlements and the land between them remained in Israeli hands as "Area C," with the result that West Bank territory turned over to full or partial Palestinian rule (Areas A and B) was fragmented into enclaves. Sharon, then in the opposition, bitterly opposed Oslo -- yet his previous settlement building largely dictated its map.

Enclaves play a key part in Sharon's thinking. Since at least the 1980s he has publicly promoted a consistent conception for the permanent disposition of the West Bank and Gaza Strip: Israeli annexation of most of the land while leaving most of the Palestinian population in pockets with limited self-rule. In a 1988 Washington Post interview, Sharon spoke of Israel annexing the "high controlling territory" while leaving 70 percent of the Palestinians in "autonomy enclaves." In a 1995 op-ed article in The Jerusalem Post, he wrote of Israeli "security zones" that would include strips cutting across the West Bank for two kilometers on either side of strategic roads.

Apparently Sharon has changed his views: Since becoming prime minister, he has said he favors a Palestinian state. That's allowed him to appear more centrist in Israel and more conciliatory in Washington while arousing wrath in his own right-wing Likud Party. Again, the key word is "apparently." Sharon has spoken of the Palestinian state getting 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- the amount of land turned over to the autonomous Palestinian Authority under Oslo. The Palestinian "state," in other words, would consist of discontinuous enclaves. Palestinians would become citizens of that state -- and not of Israel, though Israel would annex most of the occupied territories.

It's no accident that the plan bears a striking resemblance to the "grand apartheid" promoted by the old South African regime, in which blacks became citizens of "independent" bantustans. According to an Israeli diplomat who spent many years in Africa, Sharon paid both secret and public visits to South Africa in the 1980s. "I saw what interested him: bantustans, as if it were just an intellectual interest," the diplomat told me. "He had a fixation with bantustans that seemed out of proportion."

The diplomat's evaluation is that Sharon is seeking to re-create the bantustan system in the West Bank. "If you tell him it failed in South Africa, he'll say that there it didn't work because of the disproportion between blacks and whites, but that here [the Jews] are still a majority." Backing up that evaluation is a recently published booklet by far-right politician Benny Elon, who regards even Sharon's version of a Palestinian state as dangerous. The booklet contains a map of the state-to-be -- taken from a document published by Sharon a decade ago, according to Elon's spokesman. The map shows 11 separate enclaves with a gerrymandered shape familiar to anyone who remembers the bantustans of the old South Africa.

Here's where the outposts come in: They fill in the gaps between settlements in Area C. The initial number of settlers in each spot is tiny. But with those small numbers, the physical presence of Israeli civilians extends through Sharon's "security zones." The longer the outposts are in place, the more people will move to them and the harder it will be to evacuate them.

With that strategy, Sharon has approached the road map -- the plan hammered out by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia to achieve an interim Palestinian state by the end of this year and a permanent Israeli-Palestinian accord by 2005. The plan lays out three stages. In Stage I, the Palestinian Authority must make major efforts to end terrorist attacks. But at the same time, Israel must dismantle all outposts created since March 2001 and freeze growth of older settlements. For Sharon, that's the plan's most pressing threat.

Sharon, though, has learned that it plays better to say "yes, but ..." to a peace initiative than to say "no." Rather than reject the road map, he expressed reservations. The May 25 vote by Sharon's cabinet to accept the plan was based on U.S. promises to address Israel's concerns. Those close to Sharon say his main objection is to the opening steps being simultaneous. Only after the Palestinian Authority has clamped down on terrorism should Israel have to take "political steps" such as dismantling outposts.

If the United States accepts Israel's approach, any Palestinian attack on Israelis would provide the pretext to postpone dismantling outposts. And however committed new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) may be to stopping terrorism, it's unlikely he'll be able to stop all attacks.

If he is pressed to move forward, Sharon will argue that most of the outposts are really just new neighborhoods of existing settlements; he'll try to evacuate as few of them as possible before reaching Stage II of the road map, which calls for establishment of the provisional Palestinian state by the end of this year. Sharon's goal will be to keep the borders of the new state close to what the Palestinians were given under Oslo.

And then, says Yossi Alpher, a leading strategic analyst, the prime minister "will try to stop in Phase II" -- leaving a Palestinian state consisting of enclaves. He'll seek to make that "interim" stage last indefinitely. "If Sharon gets his way," Alpher warns, Israel "will look more like South Africa." Sharon would claim he has ended Israeli rule over the Palestinians while in fact Israeli domination of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would deepen.

Immediately, the key question is whether George W. Bush will press Sharon to fulfill the road map's intent and dismantle all outposts. Bush's record on Mideast diplomacy doesn't inspire much hope.

But even more important could be what the United States does in 2005, when, according to the road map, it will be time to move past the "provisional" Palestinian state to a final-status agreement. That could spell the end of Sharon's plan -- but only if there is firm pressure from Washington. In large part, the future of the occupation may depend on who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. two years from now.

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