x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Sharon's power endures in obstacles he created to peace

Ariel Sharon may be lying comatose in a hospital bed but his legacy continues to determine Israel's fate: the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the occupied West Bank.

Israel does not celebrate Hallowe'en, so many Israelis were creeped out by the sculpture of the former prime minister Ariel Sharon unveiled by the artist Noam Braslavsky in Tel Aviv last week. The piece depicts a life-size Mr Sharon as he is in real life, lying comatose in a hospital bed, the chest rising and falling to mimic breathing. The exhibit's purpose, said the curators, was to draw attention to "the inertia of Israeli politics".

But the peace was a reminder that Mr Sharon still breathes, and his legacy continues to determine Israel's fate. Starting in 1977 when he served as the agriculture minister in the government of Menachem Begin, Mr Sharon set about ensuring that Israel would never return to its 1967 borders by creating "facts on the ground", the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the occupied West Bank. Sure enough, the UN human rights rapporteur Richard Falk concluded last week that Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem was so extensive and entrenched as to render illusory the idea that a sovereign, independent Palestinian state can emerge from the current peace talks.

This is not news to anyone familiar with the urban geography of Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israelis have dug deep to ensure an intractable presence on the land that would be integral to a viable Palestinian state, the creation of which, as Mr Falk said, would require evacuation of Israel settlers on a politically improbable scale. The settler population has more than doubled to close to half a million since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, and it has become a major voice in Israel's government and an even more powerful presence in the country's armed forces.

International law is unambiguous on Israel's settlements. Even the meek UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, recently warned that "all settlement activity is illegal anywhere in Occupied Territory". But you would never know that from the US position, which these days prefers such euphemisms as "unhelpful" when discussing settlements.

The former US president George W Bush publicly declared that a peace agreement would have to be based on the facts created by Mr Sharon in violation of international law: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centres," Mr Bush wrote, "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949", which are more commonly known as the 1967 borders.

No US administration has ever used Israel's dependence on Washington's political, diplomatic and financial support to insist that it comply with international law on the issue of settlements. The Israelis have routinely flouted even those understandings achieved with sympathetic US governments on the issue. Mr Bush's 2002 "road map" for Middle East peace, for example, obliged Israel to dismantle all settlement outposts created after March 2001, and to freeze all settlement activity without exception. Only three of the more than 100 such outposts have been dismantled, though more than 50 were built after March 2001.

So, the comatose Mr Sharon has good reason to smile. The facts he created on the ground are those that are shaping the argument, at least as far as the US goes. In fact, starting with Bill Clinton, no US president has shown any willingness to pressure the Israelis into an agreement not to their liking. That's bad news for the PLO leadership, which has, over the past two decades, relied almost exclusively - and in vain - on Washington to deliver Palestinian statehood.

That could be about to change. Reports last week suggested the PLO leadership, exasperated by Washington's failures and Israel's hard line, is discussing referring issues ranging from settlements to Palestinian statehood to the United Nations. Now that has the Israelis worried, because as The New York Times noted, "no government in the world supports their settlement policy", and taking matters to the UN would allow international law to counteract some of the imbalances resulting from Israel's overwhelming advantage in military power and its political influence in Washington.

That political influence will be engaged, of course, in trying to prevent the Palestinians from referring the issue to the adjudicators of international law, in whose forums Israel loses the advantages it enjoys in Washington.

Going to the UN would not break the stalemate on the ground, of course. But by reasserting the primacy of international law on occupation and settlements, it would leave the current Israeli government position isolated and make it more difficult for the US to defend it. It remains to be seen, of course, whether Palestinian talk of going to the UN is more than just a threat to force more concessions out of the Obama administration.

On the ground, many Palestinians have given up waiting. A poll published last week found that four out of 10 favoured a new intifada if the current peace talks fail. To the extent that it avoids the suicide terrorism that swung the western public behind Israel in the last uprising, any new intifada could also force the issue in a manner that the Obama administration, left to its own devices, is unlikely to do. Violence by militant settlers against surrounding Palestinian communities will further weaken Israel's position.

But if, as Mr Falk has highlighted, Mr Sharon's "facts on the ground" in the West Bank have become intractable, then the sun may have already set on the two-state solution as envisaged by Oslo. Despite the Israeli and Palestinian leadership both rejecting the option of a single, binational state, the reality is that that is what they are living in now, although on terms that even Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, likens to South Africa's old apartheid system. Years of bitter struggle and uncertainty may lie ahead, with no agreed-upon script guiding the next generation of political leaders towards peaceful coexistence. But the "facts on the ground" may force them to focus less on how to divide the Holy Land than on to how to share it.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at www.tonykaron.com