Israel's Gaza retreat may be setback for peace

April 15, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA - When President Bush stood alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his Crawford, Texas, ranch Monday, he spoke with the fervor of a man on a mission.

Mr. Bush proclaimed he was "strongly committed to a vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." This is clearly a theme dear to his heart.

Mr. Bush invited Mr. Sharon to the ranch to bolster the Israeli leader's plan to unilaterally withdraw from the occupied Gaza Strip this summer - a move the president believes can be the first step toward Palestinian statehood. But unless the Bush administration takes a more active approach to the Gaza withdrawal, the pullout will make the conflict worse.

Some history about the Gaza withdrawal: Mr. Sharon proposed the idea last year when Yasser Arafat was still alive; Mr. Arafat's obstructionism had frozen peace negotiations. But the international community still sought to rejuvenate the peace process known as the "road map," endorsed by Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and others in 2002.

According to Mr. Sharon's key adviser, Dov Weisglass, the Gaza withdrawal was to be a tool by which Israel would freeze that process indefinitely. In a frank interview in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in October, Mr. Weisglass also said evacuating Gaza was meant to strengthen Israel's hold on the West Bank.

Mr. Arafat died in November. In January, Palestinians elected as president Mahmoud Abbas, who Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon believe is committed to the pursuit of peace by nonviolent means. Mr. Abbas has gotten militant groups such as Hamas to agree to a shaky cease-fire with Israel, but he must do much more to dismantle their infrastructure.

But the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza may undercut Mr. Abbas more than it helps. For him to undertake a real crackdown on violence, he needs the support of the Palestinian people. They must be convinced a crackdown will lead to the renewal of peace talks.

But most Palestinians fear the Gaza withdrawal is meant, as Mr. Weisglass put it, to strengthen Israel's hold on the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon arrived just after his government approved plans to build 3,500 housing units on the West Bank to connect the settlement of Maale Adumim with Jerusalem. This would cut the West Bank in half and isolate it from Arab areas of East Jerusalem. Such building would contravene the road map, which calls for a parallel halt to Palestinian violence and freezing of all Israeli settlement building.

Mr. Bush confronted Mr. Sharon on the issue, urging him not to undertake settlement activity that undercut the road map. But Mr. Sharon held firm. He won't act on freezing West Bank settlements until after Palestinians crush the terrorists. Unfortunately, the two are inextricably linked.

Mr. Bush appears to understand the connection - the need to build confidence on both sides. But he expressed hope Gaza could become a democratic model, post-withdrawal, that could win Israeli trust. This is a pipe dream. This impoverished dot of land with 1.3 million people can't morph into a semblance of democracy while cut off from the West Bank. Nor can a freeze on Israeli settlement wait upon such a mirage.

If Palestinians perceive Gaza first as Gaza last, violence will erupt again - consigning Mr. Abbas, and Mr. Bush's dream, to certain failure.

To advance his vision - and Israel's security - Mr. Bush must go beyond words and involve his administration directly in making it happen. Words won't do the job.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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