As is common in the Middle East, the armed thugs who attacked a pair of Israeli army posts near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom last Sunday morning, killing two soldiers and kidnapping a third, were actually aiming at a different target altogether. Back in Gaza, the squabbling leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, the president, and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the prime minister, were nearing accord on a unity platform that would empower Abbas to enter negotiations with Israel. The attackers, members of a rival Hamas faction and two smaller groups, were out to derail the unity agreement and close off the possibility, however slim, of progress toward peace. They should not be permitted to get their way.
Israeli spokesmen have been publicly dismissive of the new Palestinian platform, calling it useless as a basis for a peace agreement. Drafted by Palestinian inmates in an Israeli prison, it calls for a Palestinian state within the territories Israel occupied in 1967, but it does not recognize Israel’s legitimacy within its own borders. Nor does it rule out continued violence against Israelis, although it would limit attacks to the post-1967 territories.
The objections are correct, of course, but they should be seen within the context of the platform’s purpose. It is not meant to serve as a basis for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Rather, it is an internal Palestinian agreement that lets Abbas begin talks with Israel, with a mandate to reach a deal for Palestinian statehood alongside Israel, not instead of it. Following the Palestinian electoral victory last January of Hamas, which does not accept Israel’s existence, Israel had objected that it no longer had a viable partner for peace talks. With this accord, Abbas arguably re-establishes himself as that partner.
In recent years Israel has taken the position, first under Ariel Sharon and now under Ehud Olmert, that if it has no negotiating partner it will take unilateral steps to secure its borders as it sees fit. That was the philosophy behind last summer’s withdrawal from Gaza, and it underlies Olmert’s so-called realignment plan in the West Bank. In principle, it is a sensible approach. Withdrawing from the territories and separating from the Palestinians are important for Israel’s sake, not merely the Palestinians’. The Gaza experience proves it; despite the constant barrage of Qassam rockets and incidents like this week’s raid, Israel has been far safer in the past year than at any time since the 1990s.
But the Gaza experience also shows the value of coordination with the Palestinians. Despite Sharon’s unilateralist rhetoric, the Gaza withdrawal enjoyed close Palestinian cooperation, beginning with a long-lasting cease-fire. Withdrawal from the West Bank will be far more complicated, making Palestinian cooperation all the more crucial. Israel has every reason to prefer a separation that is negotiated, or at least coordinated, to one that is imposed unilaterally on an unwilling and hostile partner.
The events at Kerem Shalom are a reminder that the Israeli-Palestinian relationship remains highly combustible. A few armed thugs can hold the entire region hostage, if they are permitted to do so. The crisis is a reminder, too, of the continuing power of countries like Syria and Iran to wreak havoc by sponsoring terrorism.
Israel has every right to answer force with force in order to protect its citizens. After the dust settles, however, Israelis and their neighbors will still have to live together. The wisest course of action is to isolate the radicals by building a common front with those who share a desire for peace.