Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced Thursday that Israel would begin the process of separating itself entirely from the Palestinians in a few months' time if the Palestinian Authority did not work harder for a peace settlement. According to his speech, the Israeli government would dismantle an undisclosed number of settlements and vastly accelerate its "security barrier" project. The new initiative earned a rare rebuke from the White House, which said it would "oppose any Israeli effort to impose a settlement."
Sharon's speech stirred up renewed controversy in the Israeli press. According to one BBC analyst, the "idea of unilateral separation is popular in Israel, on both left and right." Palestinian reactions carried in Ha'aretz, however, showed that the sentiment is not shared by Israel's neighbors. In the paper's lengthy report on Sharon's announcement, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat declared, "With this unilateral approach, they may make peace with Israelis … they'll not make peace with Palestinians." However, at least some Palestinians found something positive in Sharon's message: An Islamic Jihad leader took Sharon's announcement as a sign that terror tactics were effective in changing Israeli policy.
An op-ed in Ha'aretz said Sharon's plan didn't go far enough. In order to preserve "a Jewish majority and a Jewish character" in Israel, the piece suggested that "several rigid Basic Laws" were needed. Noting the thousands of settlers Sharon might move, the piece argued, "If the maintenance of a Jewish majority justifies the uprooting of so many people, it will also justify denying Israeli citizenship to other individuals."
The Jerusalem Post also ran pieces casting Sharon's announcement in a positive light. One op-ed argued, "What Sharon has done is attach consequences to continued Palestinian refusal in implementing the road map." According to the Post, Sharon is proposing that Israel's policy of settlements "be redesigned to make way for, rather than block, a Palestinian state." The piece went on to argue, however, that the only way to bring the Palestinian side to the negotiating table and secure a serious peace agreement would be to foster "regime change" in the Palestinian Authority.
Speaking of regime change, another op-ed in the Post warned that Israel could lose Jerusalem to a democratically elected Arab mayor by 2008 if current population trends continue. The piece noted, "If we examine the national objectives of [Israel's Jerusalem] policy, we will reach the astounding conclusion that not one of them was achieved." Israel has failed to turn east Jerusalem into a Jewish sector, just as it has failed to establish a dominant Jewish presence in the city. The article noted that if current growth rates continue, Arab constituents will outnumber their Jewish neighbors by 2028, and concluded with a sobering thought for Israelis: "If we don't divide Jerusalem, we are going to lose it."