Three decades ago Winston Churchill's grandson asked Ariel Sharon how Israel should deal with the Palestinians. "We'll make a pastrami sandwich out of them," he replied. "We'll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years' time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart."
Mission accomplished. On April 14 in Washington, Sharon unwrapped his pastrami sandwich and received George W. Bush's seal of approval. Bush supported Israel's retention of several large Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and said that Palestinian refugees should be resettled in a "Palestinian state"--however notional that "state" might be. In return Sharon promised to evacuate 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza as part of a "disengagement" plan that will leave Gaza to Israel's tender mercies, and to remove "certain military installations and settlements" from the West Bank. On his flight back to Israel, Sharon and his colleagues uncorked a bottle of champagne. The celebrations were capped a few days later by an Israeli missile strike killing Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi. Like the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin weeks earlier, Rantisi's killing drew no criticism from the United States, just a decorous call for "restraint."
In hailing Sharon's "bold and courageous decision," Bush was not exactly breaking new ground. Like Bush, President Clinton argued that Israel should not be expected to withdraw to the 1967 borders and that most Palestinian refugees should eventually resettle in a Palestinian state rather than in Israel. But Palestinian and Israeli negotiators did discuss exchanging parts of the West Bank for commensurate parts of Israel proper. The effect of Bush's speech is to remove large settlement blocs from the negotiating table, thus condoning Israel's unilateral land grabs. Similarly, the Palestinian refugee question has always been considered a final-status issue, to be resolved in negotiations and not by Israeli and US fiat.
Reaction from our erstwhile European allies was swift and furious. "The European Union will not recognize any change to the pre-1967 borders other than those arrived at by agreement between the parties," said EU spokesman Brian Cowen, the Irish foreign minister. Presidential hopeful John Kerry, on the other hand, showed a disappointing deference to the Israel lobby, praising the Bush-Sharon plan and repeating the shibboleth that "Israel has no partner." He also vigorously defended the assassination of Rantisi, which is all but certain to be followed by others: Determined to prove that Israel is not leaving Gaza in the face of resistance, as it did in southern Lebanon in May 2000, Sharon has vowed to continue his assassination campaign.
At the same time, Sharon is trying to present himself as a man of peace, prepared to make "painful concessions." That is where the Gaza plan comes in. Far from representing a withdrawal, the "disengagement" is an extension of war by other means. If the plan goes forward, Gaza will be "demilitarized and devoid of armaments," and it will have no airport or seaport without Israel's approval. Israel "reserves" the right to cut off Gaza's supply lines and to invade at any time, and "will continue to maintain a military presence" along the Egyptian border, thus isolating Gaza from its only Arab neighbor.
The aim of the Gaza plan is to eliminate Israel's responsibility for its 1.3 million inhabitants while strengthening its grip on the West Bank. Israel plans to annex roughly 55 percent of the West Bank, leaving the rest as bantustans surrounded by Israel's "separation" wall and connected by roads, bridges and tunnels. This is the future Palestinian "state" to which Bush proposes that millions of refugees be relocated. As Akiva Elder of Ha'aretz notes, "the political, military and economic aspects of the plan...are amazingly similar to the homelands" in apartheid South Africa.
Sharon may be toasting his agreement with the Bush Administration, but his pastrami sandwich is a recipe for continued warfare. In the short term, the effect will be to strengthen the hard-liners in the Palestinian community, who argue that only violent resistance will end the occupation. Even if Hamas's retaliatory capacity has diminished over the past year, the killings of Yassin and Rantisi will eventually spark considerable blowback against Israel, and against its American patrons. More troubling still, the long-term effect of Sharon's sandwich is to further undermine the prospects for a just peace based on two sovereign states. A true friend of Israel would pressure Sharon to restart negotiations with the Palestinians and to end Israel's thirty-seven-year occupation. In this sense, Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery is right: Bush is "the most anti-Israeli American president there ever was, because the Sharon-Bush plan is blocking the way to Israeli-Palestinian peace, our only hope for a normal life."