The Israeli Cabinet vote last Sunday ratifying Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement initiative appears likely to prove a watershed. Just about everybody but the most diehard skeptics now agrees that Sharon means business. He really intends to get out of Gaza and at least part of the West Bank. His willingness to roll over opponents and risk his coalition, his frank admission last week that the disastrous Likud referendum had been a mistake — all these make it clear that he’s not planning some new stalling tactic, but a genuine change in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
How far will he go? His critics, still skeptical, suggest he wants to give up Gaza in order to leave Israel more securely in control in the West Bank. All the evidence points the other way. Sharon’s closest Cabinet ally, Ehud Olmert, speaks of a long-range goal of withdrawal from more than 85% of the West Bank. Sharon’s national security adviser, Giora Eiland, has been making the rounds of Washington and European capitals in recent weeks, circulating a plan in his boss’s name that would hand over fully 89%. Given Israel’s mistrust of the current Palestinian leadership, the Eiland plan envisions Jordan and Egypt taking responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza for now. It’s not anyone’s dream scenario — too much for some Israelis, too little for the Palestinians — but it is a place to start.
Egypt is acting lately as though it were taking all this very seriously. Egypt is leaning hard on various Palestinian factions to keep the peace in Gaza, under Cairo’s close supervision, after Israel leaves. Israel seems to have embraced the Egyptian role like found treasure. The Jordanians are making similar noises. Even the so-called Middle East Quartet — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — has fallen in line with the Sharon plan.
We have argued since he was first elected that Sharon is a complex man with a deeply pragmatic streak and might do the right thing when the time came. The time has come, and he’s doing it.
This is a moment of opportunity. Those who care for Israel must do all they can to help. Now is not the time for throwing up new, unwanted barriers between Israel and its neighbors, nitpicking moderate Arab regimes for all the things they should have done. Now is the time to join hands with old and new friends and move the plan forward. And if you can’t help, get out of the way.