April 19, 2004 | New York Daily News

Sharon’s Changing Mideast His Way

The leaders of Hamas (or what's left of them) hate it, Yasser Arafat is off the walls about it, and in predictably pompous style, the European Union is spitting diplomatic blood. But the truth is that the facts of Mideast political life are dramatically changing, and it looks as though nothing will stop the shifts.

It all started with Ariel Sharon's dramatic withdrawal plan, the one President Bush endorsed when the Israeli prime minister visited Washington last week.

Sharon's plan is brilliant in its simplicity – a sort of uncontestable, one-way divorce. Unwilling to wait any longer for the Palestinians to stop terror and negotiate peace seriously, Sharon plans single-handedly to disengage Israeli forces from Gaza, withdraw the 7,000 Jewish settlers who currently live there, turn control of the desert strip over to the Palestinians and begin to do the same in the West Bank by dismantling some Israeli settlements there as well.

At the same time, Sharon announced that Israel plans to complete the controversial security barricade it has been building to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers. Moreover, until a final peace settlement is drawn up, several significant West Bank settlements will remain on the Israeli side of the barricade.

Of course, Sharon doesn't want the Palestinians to see Israel's withdrawal from Gaza as a reward for Arab terrorism. He has been making sure to drive that point home by weakening the terrorists before the Israeli Army pulls out. Hence, the recent targeted killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Saturday's successful hit on Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the pediatrician-cum-killer who took over from Yassin. In case Hamas & co. still don't get the message, the Israelis also have announced that even after withdrawal, their army will counterstrike if Gaza-based terrorism continues.

One of the best parts of Sharon's plan is his offer to turn over the buildings and homes in Israel's soon-to-be-abandoned Gaza settlements to needy Palestinian families. There's one condition: Some international body will have to guarantee that the homes actually go to refugee families and not to Hamas terrorists or friends of Arafat and other well-connected Palestinians. Without that guarantee, Sharon said, he'll have the settlements dynamited before the Israelis leave.

And then there is the most important of all declarations: America is backing the Israelis on their position that the so-called right of return is valid only for entry into a future Palestinian state and not to the Jewish state, thus thwarting the Arab attempt to destroy Israel by cramming millions of so-called Palestinian refugees down its throat.

The Palestinians have a long history of rejecting Israeli offers, only to see the dream of peace, prosperity and their own state recede farther over the horizon. This time, they should accept Sharon's plan not as an outrageous insult but as a great opportunity.

Above all, they should remember that next time, the chances are that they'll be offered even less.


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