No More Unilateral Moves for Israel, Analysts Say

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon isn't likely to make any unilateral moves to disengage from the West Bank or annex parts of it, at least in the near future, some analysts here are saying.

Sharon restated his commitment to the U.S.-backed road map peace plan on Thursday and tried to distance himself from comments made by his advisors after the U.S. and other countries demanded an explanation.

Less than three weeks after Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, several Sharon confidants suggested in interviews this week that if the Palestinian Authority isn't willing or able to negotiate, Israel might make unilateral moves to establish its borders and might consider annexing West Bank land that Palestinians hope to include in a future state.

In August, Israel uprooted some 9,000 Israelis from 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank as part of a unilateral plan to separate Israel from the Palestinians.

Washington and the international community, which initially rejected the pullout plan, eventually embraced disengagement in the hope that it would open the way for Israel and the P.A. to return to the road map peace plan, with the end goal of establishing a Palestinian state.

Sharon initially tested public and international reaction to the idea of the disengagement by advancing it through his advisors, then denying that he was considering such a plan. But analysts here said they don't believe Sharon has plans for any unilateral moves in the near future, if at all.

Ethan Dor-Shav, associate fellow of the Shalem Center, said it is difficult to say what Sharon is thinking about the future, but the prime minister has set a precedent in the past of "floating ideas" in public through his advisors.

More important than what Sharon's advisors have said in the last few days are the comments made by Cabinet Minister Tsachi Hanegbi, an ally of Sharon.

Hanegbi said in a radio interview that a "unilateral action" could be something positive and not negative. It could be an "extension of Israeli sovereignty over part of the territory" that Israel plans to "remain in forever."

He named Maaleh Adumim, Ariel, the Etzion bloc outside of Jerusalem and Kiryat Arba near Hebron as possible areas for annexation and said that Israel should not "just give the impression of retreating, but you also advance."

The fact that a close Sharon ally mentioned the issue is a "strong indication" that they are talking about it in Sharon's circle, Dor-Shav said.

But Sharon can't take any more steps until it's clear that the Palestinians have failed to fulfill their roadmap obligations, Dor-Shav said.

Sharon is not likely to make any moves before his party primaries in April, and even then he would not have time to make any dramatic moves before Israeli general elections next year, Dor-Shav added.

Professor Barry Rubin of the Global Research Center in International Affairs near Tel Aviv said he doubts Sharon is considering the annexation of West Bank territory.

"No one in Israel's history since 1967 has seriously advocated annexation, and this is not Sharon's policy," Rubin said.

"Already the statement has been disavowed [by Sharon] and I think there is nothing to it," he said. "It was just a mistake by someone irresponsible or overzealous and means nothing."

Following the 1967 Six-Day war, Israel did annex the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem but not the Gaza Strip, which had been under Egyptian control; or the West Bank, which had been under Jordanian control.

The Syrians want the return of the Golan Heights and the Palestinians want eastern Jerusalem for the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Prof. Efraim Inbar of the BESA Institute said the Palestinians are the last thing Sharon is concerned about. "If he passes the budget he has another year in power. The Palestinians can wait."

There is a "strong unilateralism in Israeli thinking," said Inbar. If the pullout from Gaza is not successful and the Palestinians don't succeed in putting their own house in order, then it will strengthen the idea of making unilateral moves, Inbar said.

Sharon on Thursday said rumors were spreading, and he emphasized that there is "no better plan for the future of Israel" than the road map.

Sharon said rumors about annexation and unilateral moves had caused ambassadors to line-up outside the prime minister's office, "asking if we have some other agenda."

He said Washington "was surprised to hear that Israel was allegedly planning to modify the [road map] plan," prompting Sharon to take steps to "calm this issue."

Sharon's political advisor Eyal Arad said earlier this week that if the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian process continues, Israel might consider "turning the disengagement into an Israeli strategy. Israel would determine its borders independently."

But Sharon said Israel would "work to advance the diplomatic process solely via the road map."

"Additional territorial changes will be discussed and decided upon only in the framework of negotiations on a permanent agreement. Until we reach this stage, if we reach it, there will not be any further unilateral territorial moves," he said.

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