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The Tipping Point?
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

9 July   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

On 15 August 2005, the Israeli army is scheduled to evacuate the remaining settlers from their twenty-one settlements in Gaza as part of its withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip. No matter what PM Ariel Sharon's motives are for this withdrawal (quaintly described by some media outlets as 'redeployment' or 'disengagement'), it is quite true that this unilateral move remains risky for his own political capital in view of the rabid opposition from some settler movements. As the New York Times described it a tad too dramatically last week, Sharon's move is meant 'to shrink Israeli control of Palestinians' by 'risking his life, and defying all the schemers and back-stabbers in his party trying to topple him'.

To my mind, such an awkwardly unilateral initiative still lends itself to qualified hope for the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, seasoned diplomat Alvaro de Soto, framed the whole debate well when he stated that, though born as a unilateral plan outside the scope of the 'road map', it is possible to weave the Israeli initiative to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank into the road map, as it fits into the broader process of building confidence and moving towards permanent status negotiations. The intrinsic value of the withdrawal could remain ephemeral if it does not become part of the broader effort to reinvigorate the peace process.

However, assuming that the withdrawal is completed on time, there are some questions that need to be addressed at this critical stage or else they would become barriers that could once again tip the balance against peace. The upside of this initiative is the eruption of a pent-up desire for normality among Israelis and Palestinians who are willing to come together and lay the foundation for rebuilding the mangled peace process. There is a groundswell of relief that both sides have found a way, even temporarily, to stem the cycle of ideology and violence that distorted daily life for both peoples. After all, a trip to Ramallah would show that the Palestinian restaurants are much fuller again, and even hotel owners in Gaza are repainting their lobbies, whilst Israel is again full of tourists. Conversely, the downside of this initiative is that the Israeli withdrawal cannot provide the peace and prosperity that both sides deserve since it requires a series of complex agreements over how Gaza will fit into the larger process for peace. For instance, while Israel is planning to withdraw its settlers from the 2500 housing units in Gaza, it is building 6400 new units in the West Bank let alone consolidating the ICJ-unfriendly separation barrier that would bar around 55,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites from entering the city.

If things take a turn for the worse, the mood could shift dangerously again and extremists on both sides would grab the moment for their own narcissistic ends. Therefore, any withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank outposts should become part of the overall road map that points the way toward a credible follow-on political process and a withdrawal from other occupied territories. Haïm Yavin, one of the most esteemed news presenters in Israel [known as 'Mr Israel TV'] recently reminded his readers in his Diary of a Journey that the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel is 'brutal'.

However, let me for a moment re-focus on Israeli projected policies in Gaza. They would deny Palestinians safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, deny them the right to build a port in Gaza, disallow them from rebuilding the Gaza airport and rule out any Palestinian role in controlling the Gaza-Egypt border. No land, maritime or airspace rights: is this the future for 1.2 million residents in Gaza? Such Israeli high-octane policies would give people back slivers of their territory but deny them their freedom! It is pointless to bail out of Gaza only to turn it into a ghetto, minus any juridical status, that is cut off from the outside world. Worse still, it is foolhardy to sacrifice the ideological settlers in Gaza for the sake of planning a more ideological expansionist policy in the West Bank. As a Crisis Group Executive Summary (Middle East Report # 43, 7 July 2005) stated, at the end of the day, the battle over Gaza does not chiefly concern Gaza, but rather what comes next . This process should lead to far more substantive territorial withdrawals and settlement evacuation. Indeed, withdrawal from Gaza must lead to withdrawal from the West Bank: in other words, the overall picture is more important than its component parts. But if such withdrawal from Gaza were meant to occur in a way that lays the foundation for an overall settlement, it requires a high-level US broker, guarantor and arm-twister. It is unlikely that any Israeli government would oversee such a plan, and it behoves upon the USA to wield its influence. Helping to knit together all the unresolved issues in Gaza would not only bring off the withdrawal in the right way, but would also bolster America's regional standing at a key time when it is bogged down in a quagmire of concentric contradictions.

I have seesawed over the years between optimism, realism and pessimism. But I believe that the current constellation includes some encouraging elements - from the Gaza withdrawal, elections in Palestine, a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, to a reconfiguration of US foreign policy following a massive series of faux pas in its political assessment of the region. However, whether all this would translate into a comprehensive peace depends largely on whether the parties can learn from their past mistakes, and whether peace-making diplomacy could be crafted in an irenic way that responds to the genuine needs of both sides simultaneously. After all, the negotiating process should be based on a balance of interests, rather than an imbalance of power. And this should start with a firm acknowledgement that Gaza is the beginning, not the end, of the process. Have we finally reached the tipping point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   9 July


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