Israel Settlers Seek Alternate Peace Plans
JERUSALEM - After decades of resisting peace initiatives, right-wing Israeli politicians floated a flurry of alternative plans this week to try to block Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from pulling out of much of the Gaza Strip.
Over three consecutive days, hawkish lawmakers unveiled their visions of a solution to the conflict - from setting up a Palestinian state in neighboring Jordan or Egypt's Sinai desert to confining the Palestinians to isolated West Bank enclaves.
While the Palestinians reject these plans and analysts call them unrealistic, they reflect settler anxiety over Sharon's plan to uproot them - and their determination to stop him.
Sharon has said he will carry out his separation plan if peace efforts fail to yield results in the coming months. The plan still has to be finalized, but Sharon has talked of a pullout from much of the Gaza Strip, uprooting isolated settlements in the West Bank and imposing a boundary on the Palestinians.
The Palestinians view Sharon's plan with suspicion. They say they welcome the dismantling of settlements, but fear that in exchange for leaving Gaza, Sharon will try to impose a boundary that will leave them with only half the West Bank.
Pinchas Wallerstein, a West Bank settler leader, said settlers and their supporters are under mounting pressure to show the public that it can offer a real alternative to Sharon. "We can't just reject other plans, we have to actively propose something," he said.
Settlers fear that a withdrawal from Gaza could set a precedent. "It is clear to all that if he starts in Gaza, it will carry on to the West Bank," Wallerstein said.
The settlers find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Since the interim peace accords of the 1990s, they have either tried to derail peace efforts by dovish governments or rallied behind hardline leaders. Now, they are in a confrontation with a leader who has been one of their closest allies.
"Anyone who says the feeling is not hard is a liar," said Wallerstein. "It is even harder when it comes from Sharon."
Sharon's hardline coalition partners, the National Union and the National Religious Party, have vowed to pull out of the government if the Gaza pullout goes ahead. In the meantime, they have attempted to create a parliamentary majority - with hawkish elements of Sharon's Likud Party - to block the prime minister.
The settlers have been very successful in the past at torpedoing plans to evacuate settlements, said Middle East expert Mark Heller from Tel Aviv University. "They are definitely gearing up for a fight and this times it is serious - they find themselves in conflict with Sharon," he said.
Housing Minister Effi Eitam, leader of the National Religious Party, on Wednesday became the latest hawkish politician to offer a peace plan.
His plan would initially give Palestinians limited autonomy over education and municipal affairs. Eventually, areas of Gaza would be joined with Egypt and West Bank residents would be joined in a confederation with neighboring Jordan.
The plan apparently rules out an independent Palestinian state, and Palestinians who decide to remain under Israeli control would not have the right to vote.
"I think the overall solution to the conflict needs to be in conjunction with the other two nations we have a peace process with and that together with us have a responsibility to the region, Egypt and Jordan," he told Israel Radio.
Earlier in the week, National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman proposed fencing the Palestinians into four West Bank enclaves. The next day, another National Union lawmaker proposed giving the Palestinians control over some Arab towns inside Israel in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Benny Elon, another National Union minister, has published a plan calling for a Palestinian state in Jordan.
Wallerstein said all the plans have a similar theme: "The common denominator is that there will be no other state west of the Jordan River" besides Israel, he said.
These plans have almost no chance of success. The Palestinians insist the only chance for a settlement includes an independent Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza.
"It seems to me that that the Israeli right wing is negotiating with itself," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
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