The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Washington on April 14, intended to solicit American support for Sharon’s unilateral plan for Gaza and to formalize letters of assurances between Sharon and United States President George W. Bush, was an unprecedented affair, not only in Israeli-American relations, but in the history of American foreign policy. It is difficult to remember any previous occasion on which an American president so bluntly contradicted specific stipulations of United Nations Security Council resolutions and international law.
This came as a shock, not only to Palestinians, but to Arabs in general, especially that Bush’s statements were made only days after his meeting with the president of the largest and most important Arab state, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, and while Mubarak was still in the country. This signaled to the Arabs that the United States is ready to offer an extraordinary level of support for Israel even when Israel’s demands contradict international legality, and- -most stunningly–that American Middle East policy gives no weight at all to American relations with the Arab world.
Given that, the consequences of Bush’s assurances to Sharon extend beyond harming the chances of a renewed peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. First, these assurances justify and consequently encourage right-wing Israeli extremists to proceed with their settlement expansion advocacy, which will ultimately and ironically bring about the final death of Bush’s "vision" of two states living side by side. Bush’s concurrence, included in his letter to Sharon, that the borders contained in a final agreement be modified to accommodate Israel’s settlements is certainly going to encourage settlement expansion and further strengthen the hand of Israeli settlers. Thirty-five years of illegal settlement expansion have now been recognized and legitimated by the president of the only remaining superpower in the world.
Internationally, there are many who worry that this precedent of accepting demographic changes instituted by an occupying power will damage the validity of international conventions, as well as the very institution of international law. Lest we forget, the framework of international law was created to protect the weak in the wake of unconscionable historical precedent.
The letters of assurances exchanged between Bush and Sharon contradict the roadmap plan (which is backed by international legality) on three specific points. First, while Bush referred to the 1949 borders, the roadmap recognized the 1967 borders and stipulated that its objective was to achieve an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The roadmap also refers to "agreed-upon" modifications in the 1967 borders, in line with previous negotiations that agreed on swapping some Israeli settlement areas for land in Israel of equal quality and size. Bush discarded this notion and substituted the idea of population density as a reference point in final border delineation.
Second, according to international law and the roadmap, the refugee issue must be solved via negotiations. It is well known that Palestinians are demanding what has been guaranteed them in international law, i.e. implementation of the right of return to the homes they left behind in 1948. President Bush’s letter, however, confines the refugees’ return to the future Palestinian state, whose borders are not yet determined.
Third, not only did Bush deign to demand an immediate cessation to Israel’s expansion of settlements, a theme in all previous agreements and plans, but he suggested that Israel annex that part of the occupied territories on which the settlements have been built in contravention of international law.
The final analysis is deeply pessimistic. Amidst all the platitudes about "getting peace back on track" and the prospect of an "unprecedented Israeli withdrawal" from settlements, Israel is managing to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. Sharon’s written plans for Gaza state clearly that Israel will maintain direct and full Israeli control over all exits: airport, port and land crossing points from and to the Gaza Strip. In addition, Israel will intervene militarily inside Gaza whenever it feels the need, thus promising that Israel’s army will continue to be an unwelcome guest on Palestinian land.
Anybody with even the slightest knowledge of the size and economic realities of Gaza can see that there is no significant difference between the current situation of an Israeli military and settler presence on certain areas of Gaza away from Palestinian population centers coupled with unrelenting control over borders and, on the other hand, the situation to be created when Sharon’s plan is in place.
Further, Sharon’s assurance letter has negative ramifications for the treaties between Israel, on the one hand, and Jordan and Egypt, on the other. Both documents specified the need for a negotiated and accepted solution for the Palestinian refugee problem. There is a strong feeling in the region that the escalation immediately following Sharon’s return from the United States was indirectly encouraged by Bush’s unjustified support. Military incursions have increased, the closure is deadening, the assassinations have been stepped up and Sharon has felt free enough to issue direct threats against the life of the legitimately elected leader of the Palestinian people.
The outcome of this entire exercise was a further decline in the credibility of the United States in the Arab world (one wonders if it can get worse). The biases expressed by Bush have also affected the internal balance of power inside Israel in favor of the right wing, the traditional opponents of the peace process and a solution based in international law. We are no closer today, then, to a solution that will end the Israeli occupation of Palestinians, which is the source of all violence, in exchange for peace, security and economic prosperity for all countries in the region.