Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel did little to advance the cause of Middle East peace yesterday when he warned the Palestinians that if they did not move to uphold their end of an agreement soon, Israel would act unilaterally. He is right that the Palestinian Authority is required, under the American-sponsored peace plan known as the road map, to dismantle terrorist networks, and has failed to do so. But he is wrong that the plan views that step as a precondition to Israel taking its own painful steps, namely the freezing of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and an end to confiscation and demolition of Palestinian homes and property. The sides are to act simultaneously.
Mr. Sharon did make a bit of history in the speech, which comes at a time of soul-searching within his party due to growing public impatience with violence and hard economic times. He said that any unilateral moves by Israel would include moving some settlements "to reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population." This is the first time that the leader of the conservative Likud Party has promised to remove Jewish settlements in occupied lands. But no details were offered, and it seems likely that Mr. Sharon hopes only to move some isolated settlements alongside others still within occupied areas, rapidly complete a physical barrier and, in effect, tell the Palestinians that he has nothing further to say to them.
His promise to remove about 100 settlement outposts put up in the last few years is welcome, although it was not the first time he has made it. The hilltop outposts are not only a stick in the eye of Palestinians but also illegal by Mr. Sharon's own reckoning. Their dismantling, along with humanitarian steps that he offered — removing closures and curfews on Palestinians and reducing the number of roadblocks in the occupied areas — are vital. But they are insufficient, and his threat that if Palestinians do not make a move "in a few months" he will act unilaterally seems likely to increase violence and instability.
The speech, at a national conference on security, included some important assurances — that Israel has no desire to govern the Palestinians and that he wants "a democratic Palestinian state with territorial contiguity" and "economic viability." But until Israel matches such promises with real action on its own side, they remain in the realm of rhetoric.
Mr. Sharon's words reflected a noticeable shift on the Israeli right recently. Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, has been speaking about the need to face the reality that Jews will, in the coming years, be a minority in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, meaning Israel and the occupied areas. For Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic, he said, it must leave large swaths of conquered lands and move tens of thousands of settlers.
Israel does indeed face a demographic problem, something Israelis on the left have been saying for years. It is heartening that key members of Likud seem finally to understand. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that drawing a boundary that maximizes the Jewish population is not enough. A viable Palestinian state needs to be built in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians have failed terribly at moving in that direction. Their leadership has been bankrupt and their resort to terror unpardonable. But it is as much in Israel's interest as their neighbors' that Palestinian statehood succeed, and Israel can do a great deal to help bolster the weak Palestinian Authority. In particular, Israel needs to find a way to remove its settlers and soldiers not from a few isolated parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but from nearly all of them.