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Will Sharon Roll The Dice On An Israeli Withdrawal?

A significant change is taking place in Israeli politics.

There is a growing realization - on the right as much as the left - that a military solution to the Palestinian problem isn't possible. Israel must either reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians or withdraw unilaterally from the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Will Sharon roll the dice on an Israeli withdrawal?

A well-connected Israeli friend who has lived in Israel all her life tells me sadly that her daughter doesn't want to live in the country anymore because "she doesn't see any future here." My friend explains: "We are living in a terrible, terrible situation. I feel very pained. The violence affects everything in our lives - the politics, the security, the economy, the values with which we live. We are very tired."

This woman's sense of frustration illustrates a significant change that is taking place in Israeli politics. There is a growing realization - on the right as much as the left - that a military solution to the Palestinian problem isn't possible. Israel must either reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians or withdraw unilaterally from the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The clearest sign of this new mood is a proposal made last month by Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pull out from most of the land Israel now occupies. Olmert's new border would be drawn so that Israel maintains its current 80-20 ratio of Jews to Arabs. Mind you, Olmert is no dove. He's a prominent member of the ruling Likud Party who, just three months ago, floated the idea that the Israelis might assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Olmert's rationale is that if Israel holds onto the West Bank and Gaza, it will soon be outnumbered in this "Greater Israel" by the Palestinians. Arafat can then stop demanding a separate mini-state and can call instead for one man, one vote. And that, fears Olmert, would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

This demographic threat "has suddenly and belatedly hit the Israeli public," says David Landau, an editor at Haaretz who published the first interview in which Olmert called for unilateral withdrawal. He says Israeli leaders have never before discussed such "apocalyptic scenarios about the viability of Israel as a Jewish state."

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has also begun to drop hints about unilateral withdrawal. He has talked about "painful concessions" and described "occupation" as "a terrible thing for Israel and the Palestinians." Israel is buzzing with rumors about what he may propose in a speech this week.

Aides say Sharon would still prefer a negotiated settlement, because Israel could hold its Palestinian partners accountable for their actions. But if negotiations are impossible, Sharon too might favor withdrawal to defensible borders - though aides say he would not give up as much territory as Olmert's plan implies. Instead, Sharon might retreat to the controversial security fence Israel is now building.

"For the government, this is a period of introspection about where we go from here," says Dore Gold, a Sharon adviser.

What's clear is that there is political ferment in Israel - a search for new ideas that is driving Olmert's plan, Sharon's hints, and the recent, private Geneva Initiative. Most Israelis remain skeptical about negotiating a peace deal with Arafat, but they also doubt that Israel can continue living with the status quo.

Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, sums up the new political consensus this way: "First, there is no military solution to our conflict; second, Palestinian terrorism can continue regardless of the strength of the Israeli Army; third, the price of settlements to Israeli economics and politics is intolerable.

"It is not ideology that speaks now, but necessity," Ezrahi argues. "With Olmert, the right is now saying: 'If you want to have a Jewish state, you must withdraw.' The reality principle has taken over Israeli politics."

Despite this emerging consensus, a ferocious debate lies ahead. Far-right members of Olmert's party are furious that he proposed abandoning most of the West Bank settlements that Likud governments have been building for a generation. When I was interviewing Gold, for example, he received a phone call from an irate Knesset member pleading with him to oppose Olmert's plan. "We'll end up with nothing!" fumed the parliamentarian.

Sharon's friends claim they aren't sure which way he will come down, but that he realizes that something must change. Shimon Shiffer, a commentator for the mainstream daily Yediot Ahronot and perhaps the closest journalist to Sharon, explains that the current talk of withdrawal "is a result of frustration. They tried to defeat the intifada, and they failed." The Israeli prime minister is cautious, says Shiffer, "but he knows that he should do something."

The moment of decision has come for Sharon: The Israeli public seems ready to pull back from most of the Occupied Territories, but they want a hard-liner like Sharon to lead the retreat to defensible borders. Will the gambler roll the dice?

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David Ignatius, a Paris-based syndicated columnist, is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR

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