The best first step

December 18, 2003|By Raphael Cohen-Almagor

NOW THAT SADDAM Hussein has been captured and there are better hopes for the democratization of Iraq, it's time to tackle another major crisis in the Middle East - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - by making an innovative, courageous change to break the futile cycle of violence.

It's time to resurrect the plan for Israel to withdraw first from Gaza - known, appropriately enough, as Gaza First. It was proposed by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the mid-1980s but never was implemented. The plan is far more reasonable and practical than President Bush's "road map" to peace, which is too far-reaching, given the fundamental lack of trust between the two sides.

Gaza First is certainly more realistic than the adventurous and privately initiated Geneva Accord that is widely disputed in Israel, particularly by the Likud government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But Gaza First could be accepted by many Israelis of all political persuasions. The plan should be implemented because it is in Israel's interest.

The Gaza Strip is densely populated: 226 square miles with more than 1.2 million Palestinians and about 7,500 Jewish settlers in 16 settlements.

Under Gaza First, the government would advise the leaders of Jewish settlers in Gaza that it has decided to withdraw the army from the coastal strip and that Israelis living there would be resettled in Israel. The historical role of the settlers has ended because the cost in blood and money to support settlement in Gaza is too heavy and Israel should no longer support it. Settlers who decided to stay would do so at their own risk.

After an Israeli withdrawal, Mr. Sharon should invite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to establish an independent Palestinian state in Gaza while Israel closely scrutinizes the region's security. It would be a first step in creating a Palestinian state in both the West Bank and Gaza.

With Palestinian sovereignty would come accountability. Sovereign countries are expected to overcome terrorist organizations. A leader of a sovereign country cannot argue that he does not control his own security forces or people.

An Israeli pullout from Gaza would be appreciated internationally. Israel would be regarded as having made significant concessions to reach a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians at a time when a slim majority of those polled in the European Union said they considered Israel a threat to world peace. Pressure would mount on Mr. Arafat to respond positively.

Unlike the West Bank, where many Jews settled in their recognition of the ancient history of the disputed region, there is nothing holy about Gaza. Evacuation of settlements in Gaza would be very different from a withdrawal from the West Bank.

Further, a precedent exists for Israeli withdrawal from areas that have little meaning to Jewish history. Settlers pulled out from Israeli settlements in the Sinai Peninsula to fulfill obligations in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The Israeli government compensated the settlers financially for the loss of their homes.

The economic costs of resettling Israelis after their evacuation from Gaza would be a heavy burden for Israel to bear, particularly now while its economy is shaky. The international community would need to commit a special fund for resettlement.

Critics of Gaza First argue that a pullout would be regarded as an Israeli surrender and a Palestinian victory that would only spur the Palestinians to demand more concessions from Israel. The response to the critics is simple: It is in Israel's interests to withdraw from Gaza because Israel sees no future for its people there; the withdrawal should have been carried out long ago because of the demographics.

We all want peace, but not all of us are willing to pay for it. Peace, like any other precious commodity, is costly. The Palestinians will surely ask for the West Bank, and rightly so. But in order to continue the peace process, both sides must show commitment and sincerity.

Establishment of an independent Palestinian state in both the West Bank and Gaza is only a matter of time. Israel would be far better off initiating its establishment rather than succumbing to international pressure.

At the same time, terrorism is a concrete issue that deserves careful attention. The best way to deal with it is to maintain a separation between a Palestinian Gaza and Israel. Separation entails an economic price, especially for the Palestinians. Therefore, Palestine and Israel may both request economic assistance for Gaza.

If there will be peace, international support will come. It is in Israel's interest not to suffocate Gaza and to enable the Gazans to develop independent economic resources.

It's time to activate Gaza First as a sensible step toward breaking the deadlock in an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor is associate professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, where he heads the Center for Democratic Studies. He is on sabbatical at the Johns Hopkins University.

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