Toward the end of November, Prime Minister Sharon noted his pledge to carry out the Roadmap but warned that if negotiations with the Palestinians failed, Israel would have to take unilateral steps. Although he was not precise as to what those steps might be, he hinted that it would include “territorial concessions” and even suggested that Israel might evacuate isolated settlements and unauthorized outposts unilaterally. Nevertheless, he also made clear that he would continue construction of the security fence.
In a speech on December 18, Sharon reiterated his warning. In the short term, the prime minister suggested that he would ease travel restrictions on Palestinians and dismantle small and unauthorized outposts erected by settlers. He continued, “If, in a few months, the Palestinians continue to disregard their part in implementing the road map then Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians.” “Disengagement” would translate into Israel’s unilaterally declaring new borders should the PA not take immediate action to halt terrorism.
Sharon’s disengagement plan would evacuate some settlements and draw a security line in the West Bank. Many assumed that it would be drawn along the lines of the security fence then under construction. He noted that Israel would strengthen its control over areas it intended to be part of Israel in the future.Sharon’s remarks reflected an important turning point in the Israeli position.
The content and purpose of the speech generated much speculation, some generated by the various alternative proposals that had been forthcoming and some because of concerns about a potential demographic time bomb in which the non-Jewish population would outgrow the Jewish population in the Jewish state and in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
On Israel’s political left, there were critics of several aspects of Sharon’s speech and the initiative it described. Sharon sought to reduce friction between Israel and the Palestinians by relocating some settlements. The left, however, continued to seek a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and also isolated settlements in the West Bank.
The Palestinian reaction was predictably negative, refusing to accept or agree to any unilateral Israeli action. The Palestinians argued that the only way to resolve the conflict was through a mutual agreement that would lead to a Palestinian state composed of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and with a capital in Jerusalem.
As 2003 approached its end without a major terrorist event or a suicide bombing for almost three months, Israelis were beginning to believe, or hope, that its war against terrorism was having some success. A period of relative calm became characteristic of the fall and early winter of 2003. Then on the seventh night of Hanukkah, December 25, 2003, a Palestinian suicide bomber, acting for the PFlP, struck at a bus stop in Petah Tikva and killed four people. This was the first attack to claim Israeli civilian lives since an October 4 attack in Haifa in which 21 people were killed.
The united States strongly condemned the bombing and reiterated its long-standing view of the absolute and urgent need for the PA to confront terror and violence. The bombing served to remind participants and observers that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were stalemated and the long-awaited meeting between Sharon and Qureia still had not taken place. The Israeli government saw this as evidence that the Palestinians had not yet given up terrorism and that there was no Palestinian negotiating partner.
Events therefore suggested the need for Israel to continue to assure its own security by taking actions against terrorist leadership and cells through targeted assassinations and attacks against those preparing or participating in attacks. At the same time, they reaffirmed the need for Israel to consider unilateral steps in order to ensure its security, such as accelerating construction of the security fence and disengaging from the Palestinians.
Debating the Future
Debate within Israel concerning state policy has always been a national characteristic. At the end of 2003, it reached greater-than-usual proportions in both extent and intensity. It came from all quarters, including the political opposition, former government officials, security personnel in and out of uniform, and even elements of the government coalition and Sharon’s own political party.
By the beginning of 2004, the debate on the future of Israel had once again assumed a prominent place on the world stage as well as within the Israeli political system. Despite the u.S. focus on the global war on terrorism, especially in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict was also part of the u.S. president’s daily agenda as well as that of the united Nations General Assembly.