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Ha'aretz, November 17, 1998

 

A Hand Stretched Out to Grab?

Ha'aretz Editorial

 

During his appearance yesterday at a meeting of the Tsomet Party council, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said that he prefers to come to an agreement with the Palestinians "so that the Palestinian state [that will] be established will [occupy only] part of the territories - and not be an 'autonomous entity' that will allow the creation of a state in all of the territories." Earlier, meeting with Jewish settler leaders, Sharon called for them to grab with all their might any empty hilltops in the West Bank, "because whatever you don't take will fall into the hands of the Palestinians." And so a senior Israeli government minister has invited the settlers to tie the government's hands in future negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the extent of territorial compromises that he himself acknowledges necessary.

Sharon's daily bread has for years been the encouragement of institutional and private settlement in every part of "Judea, Samaria and the Gaza region," and the paving of roads that criss-cross the territories. In every position Sharon has held in the Israeli government in recent years - as Minister of Defense, Agriculture, Housing and National Infrastructure - he has invested his best efforts and the public's resources into encouraging settlement.

Yet the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon has agreed, as it takes on the implementation of the Oslo agreement, to rescind the use of Israel's superior power and attempt to reach an mutually acceptable political solution. In signing the Wye agreement, Israel acceded to the American demand to refrain from unilateral steps intended to change the facts on the ground in the territories while their future is being negotiated.

The lengthy haggling over the second withdrawal and the crises that have threatened the Oslo process were derived, to a large extent, from the need to ensure the safety of dozens of tiny settlements scattered through the heartland of the most densely populated Palestinian areas. Exploiting the interim period to increase the number of such settlements - which Yitzhak Rabin used to call "political" - will not eliminate the Palestinians' demands for an independent entity in most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's desire to reconcile with the settlers and the right-wing parties with strong reservations about the Wye agreement is understandable. Yet he must remember that his remarks are also heard by the Palestinians and by the whole world. The prime minister cannot put off the implementation of the Wye agreement to punish PA Chairman Yasser Arafat for his remarks on a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and at the same time ignore Sharon's call to the settlers to take practical unilateral steps that will perpetuate the occupation in the territories.

The only way to prevent undesirable unilateral steps is to exchange provocative declarations and actions for serious talks on the final status agreement. Sharon himself, placed in charge of these negotiations by the government, has written a position paper currently being distributed to Israel's delegations abroad, saying that a lasting peace will be impossible without building mutual trust between the sides. The call to the settlers to seize control of new territories could well encourage the Palestinians to use force to prevent what is effectively the annexation of these lands. Recently, Sharon has repeatedly affirmed that he believes that an agreement with the Palestinians is within our grasp. But it is not possible to reach out with one hand for a handshake of peace while the other hand is grabbing territories.

 

 

(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved


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