President Bush was right on the money when he lauded Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for “having made a very tough decision” to carry out the evacuation of settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank, a bold choice of demography (i.e., a Jewish state) over geography (i.e., the Land of Greater Israel). Indeed, Sharon’s decision cost him considerable support within the Likud, which ultimately could force him out of office. But Sharon knew the political score and still pressed ahead, in a display of leadership and statesmanship that is rare in any country.
The president was also correct in saying that, with Israel leaving Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now has to establish a working government there in order to inspire confidence in his people that Palestinian institutions can succeed and confidence in Israel that it will have a partner in peace. Abbas will not succeed in either task as long as terrorist groups are left to undercut his authority and attack Israeli targets, as they did yet again this week in Beersheba. Hamas and the other Palestinian factions must be compelled to choose bombs or ballots — not both.
But Bush was way off the mark when he suggested that the establishment of better governance in Gaza should be a prerequisite for moving back to the Road Map or that the world should just stay focused on Gaza.
Gaza doesn’t exist in a bubble.
Gaza’s governance is related to the overall performance of the Palestinian Authority, which also controls parts of the West Bank. The P.A., for all its frailty, has national political institutions — a president, a prime minister, a parliament and a judiciary — that make decisions that impact life in both territories. The problems with which these official institutions must cope — terrorism, corruption, high unemployment and rampant crime — do not stop at Gaza’s borders. Solutions for these problems must be applied in the West Bank, too.
Gaza’s economic recovery is related to the ability of the P.A. to create a sound financial system, a reliable legal structure and security in all the territories over which it presides, in addition to the establishment of greater freedom of movement between Gaza, the West Bank and beyond. International donors have pledged billions in additional aid to help generate jobs and repair infrastructure in Gaza. But this money will be wasted unless the P.A. builds on the improvements that it has already made to its accounting practices, creates a legal climate that provides clear standards for businesses, allows for a truly independent judiciary to resolve disputes and ensures that law and order prevail on the streets.
Further, unless Israel, the Palestinians and international players reach agreements on improving the movement of materials, goods and people between Gaza, the West Bank and global markets, there is little chance that international aid will be able to do more than provide subsistence for Palestinians. Projects that hold the promise of business development and financial growth will wither unless Palestinians can reliably import and export with their suppliers and customers.
For example, Palestinian farm products cannot be shipped from Gaza to the West Bank with any regularity because it takes about two weeks to move cargo between them, thanks to a cumbersome delivery system that provides Israel with security, but also ensures extensive delays. Israel is promising to improve the performance of crossing points in this system with new technologies. But unless the current delivery system is replaced with something more practical, and direct transportation links are established for the territories, the ability of sophisticated technology to improve the situation is in doubt.
Gaza’s status under international law is also linked to the West Bank. Several Israeli-Palestinian accords stipulate that the two territories must be treated as a single territorial unit, and the disengagement initiative specifically states that “the process in this plan does not detract from relevant existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Finally, Gaza’s ability to serve as a testing ground for Palestinian institutions depends, in part, on the capacity of the P.A. to point to a political horizon that gives the Palestinian people confidence that if they do everything required of them, including the rejection of violence and terrorism, they will be rewarded with an independent state in both territories. For this reason, the Road Map cannot be deferred.
Bush should be pressuring the Palestinians to meet their security responsibilities under the Road Map (especially with regard to terrorists), while at the same time pressing Israel to live up to its Road Map obligations — removing settlement outposts and freezing settlement growth in the West Bank. Israel is also required to take “no actions undermining trust,” which means building the security barrier as close as possible to the Green Line and stopping the expansion of West Bank settlements.
No one is suggesting that Israel should immediately be asked to make the same kind of sweeping territorial concessions in the West Bank that it just made in Gaza. Israel still needs time to heal the societal wounds caused by disengagement, and it is entering an electoral season during which it is unrealistic to expect major diplomatic gestures. But moving back to the first stage of the Road Map in a fair manner could provide Abbas with the promise of eventually achieving a two-state solution through negotiations, which he needs to compete against Hamas in the Palestinians’ own upcoming legislative elections.
Bush certainly must tend to the local needs of Gaza. But he also must be fully engaged in the broader Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the same time. Otherwise, the positive momentum created by Israel’s settlement evacuation will evaporate, and a new round of fighting will likely fill the void.
Mark Rosenblum is the founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now.