Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, arrived in Washington on Thursday to present Sharon's program for unilateral retreat from the 17 Jewish farming communities that are contiguous to Gaza.
Sharon and Olmert have already received praise from the State Department and even from the UN for their sudden policy of unilateral retreat, and the State Department spokesman announced that he was pleased to receive Olmert and the “policy of the Israeli government” with open arms.
Secretary of State Colin Powell went so far as to announce that he has instructed the State Department to dispatch special teams that would jointly coordinate the Israeli pullback from the Jewish communities of Katif in Gaza.
However, President Bush and Congress should be advised that the Israeli security government and the Israeli Knesset have never approved Sharon's sudden change in policy.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Sylan Shalom expressed surprise that Olmert, whose formal position is the Minister of Trade and Industry and Communications, would usurp his position.
Dr. Uzi Landau, the Israeli Government Minister in charge of American-Israeli strategic planning, told me that he was not even informed of Olmert's trip. Landau's spokesman read a statement on the record that Sharon's plan represented a “surrender to terror.”
Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Natan Scharansky was not even informed of the Olmert visit, even though he was in the U.S. at the time .
Chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Dr. Yuval Steinitz, told me that he expressed surprise that he was not informed of the fact that the Sharon withdrawal plan was being presented to the U.S. government as a "fait accompli." Gideon Saar, the chairman of Sharon's Likud faction in the Knesset, mentioned that the way Sharon had presented this policy was wrong. because he did not bring it to the Knesset for any discussion whatsover.
That is because Sharon promised in a speech in the Knesset on January 12th that "These steps (unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians) will be undertaken following exhaustive discussions between the coalition parties, and with the full cooperation of our international allies, headed by the United States.”
However, Raanan Gissin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's foreign press advisor, told Israeli journalist Aaron Lerner on Janurary 25th that “it was not clear if the discussions with the coalition parties would take place before the visit.”
Following that interview, ten prominent members of the ruling Likud party signed a petition calling for the Likud faction to meet with and hear the details of Sharon's plan before it would be presented to the U.S.
However, Sharon ignored the pleas for discussions from his own party.
In other words, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister traveled to Washington without a clear mandate from the elected representatives of the people of Israel. Prime Minister Sharon is scheduled to follow with another trip to the Capitol in the less than two weeks.
Sharon, eager to placate State Department interest in the evacuation of Israeli settlements, announced that he was ordering the evacuation of the 17 Israeli settlements in the Katif district, the prosperous farming settlements that lie to the south of Gaza. Over the years, I have conducted numerous press tours to visit the UN Arab refugee camps and the Israeli Jewish settlements in Gaza.
There is a standard Gazan Arab response about what the Arabs consider to be "illegal Israeli settlements,” and it does not include the Katif farming communities. From the point of view of the Arab refugee population in Gaza, the people who live in Katif did not uproot a single inch of Arab land, since these communities were founded on empty sand dunes. From the point of view of the Arabs in Gaza, the "illegal Israeli settlements" are spread throughout the Negev and the Israeli coastal region, where tens of Arab villages were uprooted following the failed invasion of the nascent Jewish state by the armies of five Arab nations in 1948.
The popular media will undoubtedly report that Sharon's settlement abandonment policy will sit well with both the PLO and the U.S.
Most reporters have not noticed the map of "illegal settlements" published by the Palestinian National Authority, indicates that all of the settlements that Israel established after the 1948 war, especially in the Negev region of southern Israel, would be considered to be "illegal."
For that reason, Arabs in Gaza have a legal problem with Israeli Jewish settlements that were established after the 1948 war, not with the Israeli settlements that were established after the 1967 war.
Menachem Begin, who advocated Israeli settlement activity in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Golan, made a cardinal rule when he became Israeli Prime Minister in 1977, which was that no Israeli community in the Golan, Judea, Samaria or Katif would cause Arab villages to be uprooted.
Begin reversed the post-1948 policy allowing Israeli Jews to claim abandoned Arab properties and entire Arab villages for settlement purposes.
What has been forgotten is that the U.S. never recognized Israel's acquisitions of land in the 1948 war. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made that point when he visited Israel in 1953, and placed the U.S. on the record as opposing Israeli settlement in the "conquered" Negev and the Galilee regions.
For that reason, the U.S. never recognized the 1949 or 1967 cease-fire lines as the borders of Israel. Those cease-fire lines are mistakenly believed by many to be fixed borders.
What the popular media will probably also miss is that the agricultural produce of the 17 farming communities in Katif successfully competes with the agricultural produce of the hundreds of Israel's collective farms -- a factor that has figured into the Israel Labor Party's enthusiastic support for the eradication of their agricultural competitors.
Meanwhile, the strategic significance of pulling out of the Katif region is also being missed.
Speaking off the record, a senior Israel military source describes the Katif region as the ideal place for a land invasion of Israel from the south.
That senior military source explains that the Katif communities act as a buffer for Israel against Egypt, in case Israel's southern neighbor had second thoughts about its fragile peace treaty with Israel.
Dr. Steinitz, the chairman of the Israeli Knesset's sensitive foreign affairs and security parliamentary committee, has gone so far as to issue a series of declassified intelligence briefing papers in which he claims that Egypt is indeed approaching a state of active war with Israel.
Egypt's first step in that war has been to facilitate construction of tunnels at the southern tip of the Gaza strip that are now being used to smuggle arms into the area. Without the presence of Israeli communities in Katif, funneling arms to Palestinians for use against the Israeli army in the event of an invasion will be even greater.
Yet again, Israel's Prime Minister is considering cosmetic solutions to Israel's complex problems.