Israel/Palestine: Behind Sharon’s ‘change of heart’

"THIS is not a happy decision," said Israel’s right-wing prime minister Ariel Sharon last Sunday in Jerusalem. After a six-hour cabinet meeting which divided his Likud and far-right coalition allies, Sharon announced his reluctant acceptance of the US-promoted ’road map’ to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

A meeting with the his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled soon, to be followed with a tripartite summit chaired by George Bush.

"We will need to make painful concessions… But in one sphere there will be no concession, and that is … the security of Israel and of its citizens," said Sharon.

In fact, his 14 qualifications to the road map and the unequivocal rejection of the right of return for Palestinian refugees (which is meant to be negotiated in stage three of the peace plan), shows he has no real intention of conceding a ’viable Palestinian state by 2005’, as envisaged in the road map.

Moreover, Sharon knows that the US-approved Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas has neither the physical means, nor the political authority, to rein in the armed militants of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Brigades. If therefore, these groups attack Jewish settlements or Israel itself, then Sharon can claim that the Palestinians have reneged on stage one and re-impose the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian areas. (That’s if the Israeli army relaxes its grip on the West Bank and Gaza strip in the first place.)

Until last Sunday’s cabinet vote Sharon’s dismissal of the road map was warmly approved by his Likud pro-settler MKs (MPs) and religious right-wing parties. Now they are threatening to mobilise opposition amongst their constituents.

But why Sharon’s change of heart? A Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper opinion poll published Monday showed that 56% of Israelis believed that Israel should agree to the road map, against 34% who said the plan should be rejected.

Related to this public mood is the chronic state of the Israeli economy (now suffering its longest ever recession) partly due to the cost of financing the war against the Palestinians and also because the conflict acts as a disincentive to capitalist investors. Sharon therefore urgently needs to encourage more US financial support by playing ball with Bush’s road map.

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June 2003