From Sharon’s point of view it’s a done deal. Israel has won its century-old conflict with the Palestinians. Surveying the landscape – physical and political alike – the Israeli Prime Minister has finally fulfilled the task with which he was charged 38 years ago by Menachem Begin: ensure permanent Israel control over the entire Land of Israel while foreclosing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.
With unlimited resources at his disposal, Sharon set out to establish irreversible "facts on the ground" that would preempt any process of negotiations. Supported by both Likud and Labor governments, he oversaw the establishment of some 200 settlements (almost 400 if you include the "outposts") on land expropriated from Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Today almost a half million Israelis live across the 1967 border. With financial backing of the Clinton Administration, a system of twenty-nine highways was constructed in the Occupied Territories to incorporate the settlements into Israel proper. In the meantime 96% of the Palestinians were locked into what Sharon calls "cantons," dozens of tiny enclaves, deprived of the right to move freely and now being literally imprisoned behind concrete walls twice as high as the Berlin Wall and electrified fence. Although comprising half the population of the country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the Palestinians – including those with Israeli citizenship – are confined to just 15% of the country.
In order to secure permanent Israeli control, however, the "facts on the ground" had to be legitimized as permanent political facts. International law defines occupation as a temporary situation resolvable only through negotiations. It prohibits an Occupying Power from taking any steps that make its control permanent, specifically transferring one’s population into an occupied territory and building settlements. Indeed, international law holds an Occupying Power such as Israel responsible for the well-being of the civilian population under its control. For help in by-passing international law and transforming Israel’s Occupation into a permanent reality, Sharon turned to Israel’s one and only patron in such matters, the US, which promptly obliged. In April, 2004, the Bush Administration formally recognized Israel’s settlement blocs – euphemistically called "major population centers" – thus unilaterally removing from the Palestinians 20-30% of the already truncated area in which they wished to establish a small state of their own. It was tantamount to Mexico requesting that Spain return Bush’s Texas. Israel’s annexation of its settlement blocs was subsequently approved almost unanimously by Congress: in the House by a vote of 407-9, in the Senate by 95-3.
Still, Israel needs a Palestinian state. Although the annexation of the settlement blocs gives Israel complete control over the entire country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, it needs to "get rid of" the almost four million Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories to which it can neither give citizenship nor keep in a state of permanent bondage. What Sharon seeks, and what Bush has agreed to, is a truncated Palestinian mini-state, a Bantustan, a prison-state on 10-15% of the country that relieves Israel of the Palestinian population while leaving it firmly in control of the country and its resources. Whether or not we like the term, this amounts to full-blown apartheid, the permanent and institutionalized domination of one people over another.
Having created irreversible "facts of the ground" and gotten American political recognition of an expanded Israel, Sharon lacks just one last piece to make Israeli apartheid official: either the signature of a Palestinian quisling-leader agreeing to a mini-state, or an excuse to unilaterally impose it. Arafat refused to play that role. Now it is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ turn. When, just this week, Sharon’s advisor on strategy, Eyal Arad, raised the possibility of turning unilateral disengagement into a strategy that would allow Israel to draw its own borders, the message to Abbas was clear: Either you cooperate or lose any input whatsoever into a political resolution of the conflict.
Sharon, in short, is priming Abbas for a set up, another "generous offer." It worked well for Barak, why not try it again, this time for the whole pot? What would Abbas say if Sharon offered Gaza, 70-80% of the West Bank and a symbolic presence in East Jerusalem? True, it is not a just or viable solution. The Palestinians would be confined to five or six cantons on 15% of the entire country or less, with no control of their borders, their water, even their airspace. Jerusalem, now encased in a massive Israeli "Greater Jerusalem," would be denied them, thereby removing the political, cultural, religious and economic heart of any Palestinian state. Israel would retain its settlement blocs and 80% of its settlers. But Sharon’s "generous offer" would look good on the map and, he believes, viability is simply too complicated a concept for most people, including decision-makers, to grasp. But for Abbas it sets up a no-win situation. Say "yes" and you will be the quisling leader Israel has been looking for all these years, the one who agreed to a non-viable mini-state, to apartheid. Say "no" and Sharon will pounce: "See?! The Palestinians have refused yet another Generous Offer! They obviously do not want peace!" And Israel, off the hook, will be free to expand its control of the Occupied Territories for years to come, protected from criticism by American-backed annexation of the settlement blocs.
Israeli unilateralism means only one thing: it has nothing to offer the Palestinians, nothing worth negotiating over. The Road Map asserts that only a true end of the Occupation and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state will finally see the end of this conflict with its global implications. A genuine two-state solution may already be dead, the victim of Israeli expansionism. A two-state "solution" based on apartheid cannot be an alternative accepted by any of us. Yet apartheid is upon us once again. Sharon must act fast to complete his life’s work before his term of office expires within the next year. This is the crunch. We cannot afford to have our attention deflected by any other issue, important as it may be. It is either a just and viable solution now or apartheid now. We may well be facing the prospect of another full-fledged anti-apartheid struggle just a decade and a half after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. In my view, the next three to six months will tell.