ISRAEL-PALESTINE: A new dawn or a dead-end?
Alon Ben-Meir

August 31, 2005

Now that Israel has successfully withdrawn from Gaza, without violent resistance by the settlers or Palestinian provocation, both sides can either seize the moment and build toward peaceful coexistence or allow themselves to be trapped in continuing internal friction and miss a new historic opportunity.

The challenges are enormous and the stakes could not be much higher. Both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are faced with extremists - Hamas and Islamic Jihad, on the Palestinian side, and a substantial block of the Likud party, along with some religious parties, on the Israeli side. The extremists reject the principle requirement of territorial concessions to make peace and are sworn to undermine their respective governments and so seize control of the political agenda for themselves.

In Israel, with the withdrawal from Gaza representing a major defeat to their movement and fearing that further territorial withdrawal from the West Bank is only a matter of time, the settlers have begun to mobilize supporters to wrest power from Sharon.

They are looking to former minister of finance Binyamin Netanyahu to challenge Sharon for the leadership of Likud, which he may well win, forcing Sharon to call for early elections. In response, Sharon would most likely form a centrist party.

Other parties like Shinui, the National Union and Yisrael B`Aliya, from the right side of the political spectrum, and Labor, from the left, would then ally themselves with him to form a coalition government that should command an absolute majority in the Israeli parliament.

Although the level of Palestinian violence has always played a major role in determining the outcome of the Israeli elections, how Palestinian militants and the Palestinian Authority (PA) react in the post-Gaza withdrawal will now have a far greater impact.

Should the ceasefire generally hold, the Israelis will support centrist parties, trusting that future withdrawal from the West Bank will be made cautiously toward continued separation and opening the door for economic and security collaboration.

If, however, violence is reignited and suicide bombings are resumed, Netanyahu and other like-minded leaders will feel vindicated and argue that Israel`s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza simply turned Gaza into a terror base. Palestinian violence will also prompt Israeli retaliation, which is likely to be far more severe (now that Gaza is empty of Israelis), and the ensuing cycle of violence will destroy what is left of Palestinian infrastructures and institutions.

Under such conditions Netanyahu might even win by a relative majority and then be asked to form a new government, most likely comprised of all the right-of-center parties, with dire consequences for Israel and the Palestinians.

For Mr. Abbas the problems are more acute as well as more dangerous. He, better than most Palestinian leaders, understands that acts of violence against Israel will only be to his detriment. His political fortunes will suffer not just because any progress will virtually stop, but because of the nature of Israel`s political dynamic and the Israeli public`s demand for security.

Hamas might wish to claim that Israel withdrew from Gaza because of the relentless suicide bombings and rockets. This rhetoric is fine as long as it is for internal consumption and not acted on to force Israel from the West Bank. To resort to a strategic use of violence would be a tragic mistake. Here is where Mr. Abbas must be very clear with Hamas and Jihad.

No Israeli government would commit itself to further withdrawal from the West Bank under the gun. Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza were based on demographic and security considerations rather than the number of Israeli casualties. A million suicide bombers will not budge Israel a single inch, for example, from the settlement Ma`aleh Adumim or the larger part of East Jerusalem.

That said, Mr. Abbas is in no position to heed American or Israeli pressure to disarm Hamas now. He is correct in trying first to co-opt Hamas and Jihad into the political process. The PA (according to a comprehensive US study of Palestinian security forces) does not have sufficient police and other military forces to disarm 5,000 well-trained and well-equipped Hamas fighters. And, in reality, Hamas or Islamic Jihad might not need to disarm immediately, as long as they fully adhere to the ceasefire in place.

In Northern Ireland it took eight years after the Good Friday agreement for the IRA to finally agree to decommission their weapons, but during this period the agreement held up quite well - that is, there were no major violent incidents.

If there is any delay before Hamas lay down their arms, the PA can use the time to consolidate, build, discipline and better equip its security forces and be prepared to challenge Hamas with credibility should it become necessary.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration must spare no efforts or resources to help the PA build its forces, for without this help, all President Bush`s talk about disarming Hamas and Jihad and fighting terrorism is cheap and self-defeating.

The focus of the PA must now shift to building up Gaza and inviting all interested parties to play a part in its reconstruction. True, this is easier said than done. Gaza is politically and socially fragmented; there are the various militant groups, powerful families (Hamoulah), and the PA, with its own factions and its own rampant corruption and lawlessness.

Yet Gaza has the potential of becoming a modern place that attracts tourism, investments and commerce, an entity demonstrating to the world, as Mr. Abbas has said, that the Palestinians are a responsible people and deserve their place under the sun.

The task is huge but the possibilities for both Israelis and Palestinians are all there. The choice is between a new dawn and the dead-end of another decade of bloodshed.

Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU, is also the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute, New York