But it is still Israel that can do most to improve the economic lot of the Palestinians: not only in Gaza, where it will continue to control the flow of people and goods across the border, but also in the West Bank, which despite the ceasefire remains under a harsh regime of closures and roadblocks.
The Economist, Aug 11th, 2005
CUI BONO (who benefits?) is said to be a helpful question to ask when you are trying to unravel a mystery. Yet it does not tell you much about why Ariel Sharon intends next week to start pulling all of Israel’s settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza strip, which it has occupied for more than a generation, since the war of 1967. Some Palestinians say that only Israel will benefit. Some Israelis say that only Palestinians will benefit. The true answer in this case is that who benefits depends almost entirely on what happens next — and nobody has much of a clue about what is going to happen next.
What it isn’t
Mr Sharon’s “disengagement” plan is a mystery because of what it is not. It is not the product of a peace agreement. Instead of land for peace — the principle under which Israel returned Sinai to Egypt in
1982 — Israel is quitting Gaza pretty much unilaterally, after minimal co-ordination with the Palestinians, and with no firm promise that their ferocious intifada will not erupt again the moment the settlers
have gone. Nor is the plan necessarily a step towards an independent Palestinian state, since it includes only a token withdrawal from the much bigger West Bank, which would have to be the heart of any
Palestine worth the name. So just as the Israelis cannot be sure that the intifada won’t resume, the Palestinians cannot be sure that Mr Sharon does not intend after leaving Gaza to sit tight everywhere
else (see article).
Oddly enough, given that this is an Israeli initiative, the only people who in the short run are almost certain to benefit are the Gaza strip’s 1.3m Palestinians. Israel’s 8,000 or so settlers have occupied more than a fifth of the scarce land in the strip. During the intifada, protecting the settlers required Israel to keep military forces in Gaza, who killed plenty of innocent civilians while fighting Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers. So even if Israel’s departure is not followed — as it should be — by massive economic help, the departure of all Israel’s settlers and soldiers will improve life in the strip.
What does Israel stand to gain? Nothing at all, cry Mr Sharon’s many detractors at home. Binyamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who resigned this week as Mr Sharon’s finance minister, speaks for most of Israel’s Likud party when he foresees nothing but negatives. Even Israelis who support the principle of land for peace are troubled about giving up land with no peace deal in return. They say that this will embolden the Palestinians’ men of violence, who already boast that it was their attacks that made Israel flee, and who will now use both Gaza and the West Bank as a haven from which to launch more
rockets and suicide bombers into Israel proper.
What may happen next is therefore that the conflict will revert to its previous stalemate. The Palestinians will resume their attacks, asking how else they can throw off the occupier. Israel will say that it cannot give up more land until the Palestinians give up terrorism. It will be back to square one — except that Israel will have surrendered the square called Gaza. But in that event not even the
Palestinians will benefit much, because if the intifada does resume Mr Sharon will send Israel’s tanks and helicopters straight back in — unencumbered this time by the complication of protecting the settlers.
After decades of false dawns, those who expect little from the Gaza disengagement have experience on their side. That may include its architect. For all anyone can tell, Mr Sharon’s true aim is to fight
on from shorter lines, having earned credit with America by sacrificing Israel’s most dispensable settlements, all for the sake of holding tighter to the big ones in the West Bank. Sitting tight will probably lose Mr Sharon the support of his Labour coalition partners, and so bring an early election, but few expect Labour to win it. The likely outcome — after diplomacy has been stalled by months of electioneering — is Likud again, under the tough Mr Sharon or the no less tough Mr Netanyahu, with little change in policy.
What it could be
Must it be like this? If disengagement is to be more than an interlude, the next big job after the settlers leave must be to prevent the war of attrition from resuming. In the “road map” which both Israel and the Palestinians have signed this is the job of the Palestinian Authority. But the PA was a feeble thing even before Yasser Arafat’s death last November, and Mahmoud Abbas, his successor, has neither the willpower nor the firepower to stop the extremists of Hamas from resuming the fight if they so choose. He
needs help — though it has to be help of the economic and political, rather than the military, sort.
Why economic? Mr Abbas may not be able to stop Hamas from resuming the intifada, but the Palestinian people can. And they would have a good reason to do so if the disengagement brought a big improvement
in their lives, which they believed a return to violence would jeopardise. Outsiders can help in this: James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank, is trying to organise a post-disengagement dividend for Gaza. But it is still Israel that can do most to improve the economic lot of the Palestinians: not only in Gaza, where it will continue to control the flow of people and goods across the border, but also in the West Bank, which despite the ceasefire remains under a harsh regime of closures and roadblocks.
Beyond economics, the Palestinians need a “political horizon” — a believable promise that George Bush’s oft-enunciated “vision” of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank as well as Gaza is achievable without recourse to the gun. That state cannot come instantly: the two sides are farther apart today than they were when Bill Clinton’s peacemaking efforts collapsed in 2000, and trust each other less. But with America pushing, it should at least be possible to start a process, building first on self-government for Gaza and, in the West Bank, a settlement freeze followed by further withdrawals. Israelis and Palestinians are exhausted after five years of violence, and susceptible to pressure. Wary of failing as Mr Clinton did, distracted by Iraq, and reluctant to lean on Israel before it got out of Gaza, Mr Bush has kept his distance. The day after Mr Sharon pulls out must be the day that Mr Bush steps in.