Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who passed away on January 11, will surely be remembered as one of Israel’s greatest military and political leaders.
This is not because he was universally beloved – he was not – nor because his judgement was necessarily always superior – on the contrary, his various missteps are a matter of record.
Rather, Sharon earned his place in Israel’s pantheon of leaders as a battle-tested man of action whose vigorous defence of Jewish national rights was only superseded by his desire for a lasting peace.
Sharon certainly defended the right of Jews to live in the West Bank, but in the interests of peace, he came to endorse the concept of the creation of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, necessitating “painful concessions” on both sides.
For Sharon, that included the removal of isolated Israeli settlements from areas “which will not be included in the territory of the State of Israel in the framework of any possible future permanent agreement” as part of a unilateral disengagement initiative he carried out in 2005.
This decision did not take place in a vacuum. Sharon’s moves were coordinated with Washington and reflected key understandings between Israel and the US over the West Bank settlement blocs and Palestinian refugees.
It is impossible to predict how Sharon, incapacitated by a massive stroke in January 2006, would have responded to the negative developments that followed such as the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006, Hamas’ Gaza coup against the Palestinian Authority in June 2007, and increasing rocket attacks against Israel.
However, one clear positive outcome of disengagement was that it disproved the fallacy that the continued growth in the population in settlements is the major obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Sharon pulled out of 21 settlements in Gaza and four more in the West Bank. We know unequivocally that Israel can remove settlements if necessary for a final peace because it already has – and also that the Palestinian response to such withdrawals is not necessarily constructive or peaceful.
Furthermore, through his understandings reached with the Bush Administration in 2004, Sharon put in place sensible policies on West Bank settlements designed to maximise the possibility of peace while allowing residents to live normal lives. Guidelines adhered to ever since forbid new settlements or the expansion of existing settlement boundaries – completely contradicting the widespread idea that growth in settlements is supposedly “gobbling up Palestinian land”, and making a two-state peace impossible. Settlements take up well under 2% of West Bank land and no significant growth in this territorial amount is occurring.
Meanwhile the principle of land swaps – the exchange of land inside pre-1967 Israel in return for Israel’s retention of key West Bank settlements – contained in the Bush-Sharon understandings is now so well-established as essential to peace that even the Arab League has endorsed the idea.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was therefore right, in law and as an expression of Australia’s bipartisan support for a two-state resolution, when she recently refused to go along with the charade that demands everyone condemn all Israeli settlements as illegal under international law, as her predecessor Bob Carr had done on numerous occasions.
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – the provision usually cited as supposedly making the settlements illegal – was intended by its authors to apply only to forced transfers or deportations, not voluntary ones. In any case, by the plain text of the convention itself, it does not apply to the West Bank. So when Bishop says, “I would like to see what international law has declared them illegal”, she is on solid ground, backed by numerous eminent international law authorities.
But even more important than the legal argument is her policy one: “The issue of settlements is absolutely and utterly fundamental to the negotiations that are under way…I don’t think it’s helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re trying to get a negotiated solution.”
Given the broad acceptance of land swaps as essential to peace and the 2004 Bush-Sharon arrangements preventing settlement expansion – in place for a decade now – it is fair to question the motivation of those on the Palestinian side who seem to attempt to escalate the settlement issue to that of a deal-breaker at every sensitive moment in the peace talks.
They should certainly not be encouraged to do so by having international figures supposedly eager for a two-state peace denouncing settlements as “illegal” at every opportunity.
Moreover, it is crucial that serious obstacles to peace on the Palestinian side be recognised and addressed – issues that include continued Palestinian incitement for terrorism and financial support for those convicted of terrorism against Israelis, the Hamas-Fatah split, the lack of a democratic mandate for current Palestinian leaders and the refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Sharon, whose watchword was Israel’s security, eventually concluded that a two-state outcome which balances the Palestinians’ right to self-determination with Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state with secure and recognised boundaries was in Israel’s best interest.
He was right, and, as Prime Minister, forged both an Israeli political consensus for such an agreement, and some of the diplomatic preconditions for one through the Gaza disengagement and Bush-Sharon understandings on land swaps and settlement growth. Yet peace will remain elusive so long as the Palestinians refuse to accept responsibility for tackling and removing obstacles on their side, and prefer to grandstand on settlements. Friends of peace, such as Ms. Bishop has shown herself to be, serve both Israel and the Palestinians well when they discourage excessive focus on the settlement issue and instead encourage commitment by the parties to overcoming all the genuine obstacles to a two-state peace agreement.