Ariel Sharon's major policy statement at the Herzliya security conference last week might have made world headlines, but it's far from clear what the Israeli prime minister has in mind. Sharon called on Palestinian leaders to open negotiations with Israel and threatened unilateral steps if they don't, but he did not spell out those steps.
In fact, Sharon's long-awaited Dec. 18 speech, in which he broached the possibility of a unilateral Israeli pullback from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, raised more questions than it provided answers.
For example, does Sharon envision a major Israeli withdrawal and a large-scale evacuation of Jewish settlements? Or will the pullback be minimal, with few settlements evacuated and the Palestinians surrounded on all sides by security fences? Will Sharon be able to get American support for his new policy? Will he listen to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or to the Shin Bet security service, which are urging him to go in opposite directions? Will he actually be able to dismantle dozens of settlements, assuming he wants to? And what are the likely political ramifications in Israel?
Local pundits give two very different readings of the prime minister's intentions.
According to one reading, Sharon's plan is to redeploy Israeli forces behind the security fence being built between Israel and the West Bank, and to "relocate" dozens of Israeli settlements from the Palestinian to the Israeli side. According to this scenario, the fence would be no more than a temporary security line, and the Palestinians would have the option of coming back to the negotiating table at any time to set final borders.
But there is another, widely divergent reading -- that Sharon intends to complete a second, "eastern fence," along the Jordan Valley, enclosing the Palestinians between the two fences on about 50 percent to 60 percent of the West Bank. Under this scenario, Israel would retain the Jordan Valley as a buffer zone between the Palestinian entity and Jordan.
Whether the Palestinians have territorial contiguity or only contiguity of movement will depend on which way Sharon goes.
The IDF's Central Command, responsible for the West Bank, has drawn up a contingency plan called "Everything Flows," in which a system of bridges, tunnels and bypass roads provides the Palestinians with freedom of movement, without full territorial contiguity.
Whether Sharon gets American support will depend on which plan he adopts. The United States insists that Israel do nothing to undermine President Bush's vision of a viable Palestinian state. That would seem to rule out American support for the eastern fence plan.
For his part, Sharon has said that whatever he does will be fully coordinated with the United States. Indeed, there is nothing more important in his foreign policy doctrine than Israel's U.S. ties. Therefore, it's hard to see Sharon pressing for the eastern fence scenario.
On the other hand, for years Sharon has been carrying around a map based on "Israeli interests" which, like the eastern fence scenario, leaves the Palestinians with no more than 60 percent of the West Bank. If the post-withdrawal lines seem to correspond to Sharon's "Israeli interests" map, suspicion will grow that he is trying to impose a permanent arrangement on the Palestinians based on a minimal Israeli withdrawal.
The IDF, however, is urging Sharon to be generous with the Israeli withdrawal. The army's planning branch, under Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, has presented Sharon with an ambitious plan leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
The IDF is asking Sharon to show the Palestinians and the international community how serious he is by handing over West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority -- a process that until now has been conditional on Palestinian willingness to fight terrorism -- as soon as possible.
The army is also advising Sharon to lift roadblocks and allow free movement between Palestinian cities, even at the risk of more terrorist attacks against Israel. The IDF's argument is that if such moves are not reciprocated by the Palestinians, the world will be much more understanding of a subsequent, unilateral Israeli move. If the moves are reciprocated, then a negotiated settlement could be in the cards.
The weight Sharon attaches to the IDF view can be gleaned from the fact that Eiland, who is slated to become head of the National Security Council, has been appointed to lead a team of experts fleshing out Sharon's unilateral program.
But there also are other, opposing voices in the Israeli defense establishment. The Shin Bet is urging Sharon to proceed very carefully and not hand over cities or lift roadblocks until Palestinian terrorism stops.
The Shin Bet argues that the Palestinians are doing nothing to combat terrorism. These officials say that a devastating Oct. 4 suicide bombing in a Haifa restaurant may have been the last major terrorist attack, but only because Israeli forces have succeeded in foiling 26 suicide bombing attempts since then.
Perhaps the biggest question for Sharon is whether he will be able to relocate dozens of Jewish settlements.
So far, the government has not set up a team to negotiate with settlers over compensation or alternative housing.
Even if it does, the right-wing, ideological settlers -- as distinct from those who moved to the settlements for lifestyle reasons or because of government financial incentives -- are unlikely to cooperate.
The government already is having difficulty dismantling sparsely populated, illegal settlement outposts; when it comes to large, authorized settlements, settler opposition is sure to be much fiercer.
Every such relocation would be a major operation for the army. Given the army's manpower limitations, the settlements probably would have to be dealt with one by one, in an emotionally wrenching and time-consuming process.
Sharon also can expect opposition from within his own Likud Party and from the far right. As soon as a relocation program goes into effect, the National Religious Party and the National Union are expected to quit the governing coalition, and some Likud lawmakers will stop automatically supporting the government.
Eleven of the Likud's 40 caucus members already have signed a petition demanding that any settlement relocation first be authorized by the caucus. Others are pressing for a full-scale debate on Sharon's new policy at next month's party convention.
The immediate test for Sharon will be whether he can pass the 2004 budget by the end of the year. Last minute, right-wing opposition to the budget could have a far-reaching effect on Sharon's ability to move his policy forward.
Of course, all the unilateral arguments would become irrelevant if Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei were to come to the table and negotiate a deal with Sharon on the basis of the internationally backed "road map'' peace plan.
But few on the Israeli side, including Sharon, believe that will happen.
That leaves the two key, and so far unanswered, questions: Which unilateral plan will Sharon adopt, and will he have the political support to implement it? Â
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.