By Alex Brummer
THE OBSERVER , JERUSALEM
Reprinted In The Taipei Times
Tuesday, Jan 20, 2004, Page 9
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the gnarled, old war-horse of Israeli politics has been regarded, as long as I can remember, as the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
While Sharon, a veteran of Israel's bloody 1982 campaign in the Lebanon, an architect of the Jewish state's settlement policy and author of the "iron fist" deployed against the Palestinian insurgents of the West Bank and Gaza, remains at the helm in Jerusalem, it is widely believed that there can be no peace in the region.
Indeed, the burly 75-year-old Israeli leader has been demonized in the Western media as a warrior against terrorism who will stop at nothing. His long-standing goal has been to ensure that a country, which he describes as belonging to the Hebrew people since the warlord and psalmist King David was crowned in Hebron 3,500 years ago, remains in Jewish hands.
His vision and that of his hard-line Likud predecessors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, has been of a Greater Israel, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, taking in the ancient kingdoms of Judea and Samaria. The holy city of Jerusalem, home to the first and second Temples, would remain inalienable Israeli territory.
But in a visit to Israel earlier this month (as part of a delegation of the Board of Deputies of British Jews) I have come to realize that the Biblical dream of a recreation of ancient Israel is dying on the vine. Only Likudnik extremists, such as former defense minister Moshe Arens, are hanging on to the Greater Israel dream. In conversations with several Cabinet figures and leaders from all parties, it became increasingly clear that three years of relentless terror and retaliation have taken their toll on all policy-makers.
The demographic realities of an Arab population West of the Jordan river that could swamp Israeli democracy are hitting home.
Even the most sacred goals of the Jewish state -- including the unity of Jerusalem (annexed after the 1967 Six Day War) could yet be jettisoned to ensure Israel's survival. The first public cracks in the Likud vision of a greater Israel appeared early last month in an interview with Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with the popular tabloid Yediot Ahronot.
In a stunning repudiation of the Greater Israel vision, Olmert suggested that it was time for Israel to withdraw from most of the territories and salvage Israel as a predominantly Jewish democracy in the Middle East. This looked like a trial balloon which would go nowhere and be shot down by his all-powerful boss. But not a bit of it. In our conversations with Sharon in the Cabinet Room of the prime minister's office it was clear that Sharon was singing from the same hymn sheet. Israel, despite putting out feelers to Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Ala, could not bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table where the "road map" to peace is still on offer.
Sharon told us, as he would later tell the Likud party convention (to the sound of boos and hisses from the extremists), that he was prepared to take the unilateral steps designed to preserve Israel's sovereignty as a Jewish state. Sharon's change of tack is a volte-face of potentially historic proportions.
The demographic arithmetic of the new Sharon approach seems irresistible to many of those we spoke to in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
It goes like this. At present there are 10 million people living in the stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea. Some 5.4 million are Jews and 4.6 million are Palestinians (including the Israeli Arabs).
Given the current trends in population growth, the number of Palestinian Arabs will overtake the number of Jews in the next six to 10 years. Even if, as Sharon postulates, there is a further incoming of 1 million Jews from the diaspora, there is an inevitability about population trends which would threaten the very existence of a Jewish state. As a result, the best outcome, in the view of one senior British diplomat, "is dividing the land."
Against this tectonic shift, the major worries of the Anglo-Jewish community seem even more relevant at this juncture. British Jews feel isolated by what they universally perceive as a hostile media with the BBC and liberal-leaning newspapers leading the assault. There is fear that distorted images of Israel's tough policies towards the Palestinians are rebounding in the Jewish communities of Britain and Europe, leading to an acrid new anti-Semitism. Israel is seen as not having helped itself or the diaspora with its inadequate public responses to the past three and a half years of terrorism and brutal retaliation.
In particular there is frustration that, whereas Palestinian spokesmen have managed to get across the idea of "occupation, occupation and occupation," Israel has shot itself in the foot through poor communication. This is exemplified by the terrible wounding of the British activist, Tom Hurndall, who was shot by an Israeli soldier in Gaza while trying to protect Palestinian children from the line of fire.
A frustrated spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces told me privately the handling of the whole incident had been quite disturbing. In the months it had taken for the Israeli forces to investigate and arrest the soldier allegedly responsible, critics of the Jewish state had a wonderful opportunity to "dehumanize Israeli soldiers."
But although Israel holds a special place in the hearts of Anglo-Jewry, the attitudes of British Jews do not differ very much from the rest of the nation. We are as concerned about the purpose, direction and construction of the security fence, snaking its way south through the Palestinian territories, as the broad mass of UK public opinion.
The difference is that we are willing to hear and listen to what the Israeli leadership has to say about the fence before jumping to the conclusion that it is a permanent barrier -- a new Berlin Wall -- cutting through Arab olive groves and entrapping Palestinians in their townships.
The security fence, seam line or wall, as its enemies like to describe it, has taken on a life of its own as an issue. Poor Israeli public relations have meant that at times the 200km barrier (of which 8km are concrete) has become a new symbol of Israel oppression. It has been condemned by US President George W. Bush and in Britain. Both nations have cooled their protests now that its purpose is better understood.
The fence has been referred to the Court of Human Rights in the Hague after heavy lobbying by the Palestinians and their supporters at the UN.
It is also seen by some as complicating plans by Sharon for separation of the Jewish and Palestinian populations by creating a de facto border, inside Palestinian territory, which will be impossible to shift if there is a final settlement between Israel and a new Palestinian state.
The reason why Americans and the UK Foreign Office now look more benignly at the fence is because they understand it better. It is not electric (as has often been reported) but electronic, using sophisticated technology to detect breaches. Israeli security services, police and intelligence believe it has been highly effective in preventing terrorism breaches.
Israel has agreed to open a network of gates and offers transport to schoolchildren who need to cross the fence to go about their daily business. But heart-rending incidents, like the report of a Palestinian mother losing her twin babies while being held up at an Israeli checkpoint for nine hours, provides reinforcement to critics. Israeli President Moshe Katzan told us: "It is for reducing bloodshed. We don't want it."
Certainly, when you visit the fence it does not look very temporary. A new fully paved highway has been built parallel to the fence. Neither of the major parties, Likud or the Labour Party still headed by Shimon Peres, disagree with its utility. Leading Labour politicians say they wanted it to follow the Green Line of the 1948 ceasefire, so there could be no objections internationally. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom argues that the current fence is no different to that which divides Israel from Lebanon in the north and Egypt in Sinai. Both barriers shifted as a result of political negotiation.
The fear of the critics is that it represents Sharon's preferred route for a unilateral division between Israel and a new Palestinian state looking eastwards to Jordan and annexing great chunks of Arab land. But in so doing it also effectively abandons those heavily guarded settlements to the east of the wall and would end the annexation of Jerusalem by handing back the Israel-controlled neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (but not the Old City) to the Arabs.
Many questions remain unresolved and it is still doubtful that Israel will ever retreat to the 1948 Green Line which leaves towns like Netanya, a popular seaside resort, in cannon-firing distance of Palestine. What is unmistakable, however, is the change in the political consensus with Sharon acknowledging that a Greater Israel no longer makes demographic or political sense.
The peace which Sharon envisages may be an uneasy one which cuts Palestine adrift from the trade routes to the Mediterranean and leaves it more dependent on Jordan and the Arab world. It would also lack the legitimacy of the kind of negotiated settlement which Labour leaders believe is essential.
What is clear is that, with or without Palestinian agreement, Israel now sees a two-state solution as the only option. Without it, Israel's struggle to protect its democracy and human values and its status as a place of refuge for the dispossessed Jews of the world will be lost.
Alex Brummer is city editor of the London-based Daily Mail and a member of the International Division of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.