WASHINGTON - Something is brewing in Gaza that may help U.S. officials think through how to deal with what is boiling in Iraq.
Consider an intriguing article on Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointing out that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and Hamas, longtime rivals, had "made a great deal of progress" toward setting up a new administration to run Gaza after Israel's unilateral withdrawal. The article quoted Hamas leaders as saying that they were willing to participate in the administration of Gaza now that it is being "liberated" - for which Hamas claims credit - and not being turned over in the context of the Oslo peace accords.
Here's the message I take from this: There is nothing like the burden of responsibility to promote accountability.
Ariel Sharon has declared his intention to withdraw Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip - without any formal agreement with the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon has given up on negotiating with Mr. Arafat, let alone Hamas, but he finally understands that Israel cannot go on controlling all these Palestinian lands and remain a Jewish democracy. So he is unilaterally pulling out of Gaza, just as his predecessor, Ehud Barak, pulled out of South Lebanon: You want it, it's yours.
What the Haaretz article tells me is that Mr. Arafat and Hamas understand two things: One, the morning after Israel's pullout, they will get to pat themselves on the back for being Gaza's liberators. And two, the morning after the morning after, the Gazans will be tapping Mr. Arafat and Hamas leaders on their shoulders to ask for jobs, water and electricity.
Yes, Mr. Arafat and Hamas will continue to blame Israel for shortages of all those things, but those charges won't quite fly once the Israelis pull out - provided Israel is smart and allows Gaza some openings to the world so it doesn't become just a big prison - and Israel also withdraws settlements from the West Bank.
Ask Hezbollah. For all of its boasts about driving the Israelis out of South Lebanon and marching next on Jerusalem, since the Israeli pullout to a U.N.-approved border, Hezbollah has never dared cross that border in force. Why? Because Hezbollah knows that Israel, having pulled back to the U.N. border, has the moral and strategic high ground, and would blow up the power plants of Beirut if Hezbollah invaded. And Hezbollah doesn't want that responsibility.
"Maybe it's good that Hamas wants to claim credit for driving Israel out - if they are responsible for liberating Gaza, they are also responsible for running it," said Israeli scholar Yaron Ezrahi. "It diminishes Israel's responsibility and increases Hamas' at the same time. The only way to really reduce the violence is when you create a context where Palestinian leaders, not Israel, are held accountable by their own people for the negative fallout from violence."
And this leads to our challenge in Iraq.
America's Baghdad boss, L. Paul Bremer III, is absolutely right when he insists that we must turn over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, as promised. Why? Because we may have trained thousands of Iraqi police officers, but without a government of their own, they are defending America - which they will never do with vigor. The only thing they might defend is a government of their own.
Moreover, right now many Iraqi leaders blame the United States for what is going wrong in Iraq. The Bush team deserves much blame, but not all. Iraq's nascent leaders will begin to act in a concerted and responsible fashion only when they - like Hamas, Mr. Arafat and Hezbollah - have the burden of responsibility.
I'm not advocating unilateral withdrawal from Iraq. I am advocating putting every ounce of energy we have behind the U.N. effort to replace the current Iraqi Governing Council with a legitimate, broad-based caretaker government to run Iraq from July 1 until elections in January 2005. Hard, but not impossible.
After decades of colonialism and misrule, and then a traumatic dictatorship in an already tribalized society, Iraqi national identity is weak - and insecurity only weakens it more by prompting people to fall back on their tribal units. But there is an Iraqi identity. It takes security, though, for it to emerge. Even Iraqis don't know how strong it is, and they won't know until they are handed the keys.
Only then can we gradually shift the burden for Iraq's self-construction or self-destruction to Iraqis themselves. Only then will they begin to be accountable - and accountability is the mother of both self-restraint and self-government.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.