Gaza pullout creates only illusion of progress


PHILADELPHIA - While TV cameras zoom in on Israeli settlers leaving Gaza, the real story remains blurred.

The real story is what will happen after Israel leaves. Will Israel's exit lead to renewed talks on peace or to a new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence that will shake the Middle East?

The signs look bleak. Israelis, Palestinians and U.S. officials hold unreal expectations about the pullout's aftermath. Unless reality takes hold, such illusions spell big trouble in Gaza and beyond. So what are these dangerous fantasies?

Ariel Sharon's dream is that the Gaza pullback will free Israel to tighten its grip on much of the West Bank.

The Israeli prime minister conceived of the Gaza pullout when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was alive and there appeared to be no trustworthy negotiating partner. Mr. Sharon hoped the pullout would undercut international pressure to renew peace talks.

Getting out of misbegotten Gaza would be a big plus. Its 140 square miles contain more than a million impoverished Palestinians; protecting about 9,000 settlers had cost many Israeli soldiers their lives.

Then Mr. Arafat died. Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas, a man President Bush hopes can establish a democratic Palestinian state. But Mr. Sharon still hopes to put off negotiations on that state.

Before any new peace talks, Mr. Sharon specified that Palestinians must dismantle groups that still use terror and want to fight Israel. Meantime, Israel will continue to expand its settlements in the West Bank, changing the realities on the ground.

The problem with this dream: Withdrawal from Gaza won't persuade Palestinians to accept a postponement of peace talks while West Bank settlements are being enlarged.

Mr. Bush's dream is that the Palestinians can establish a democratic proto-state in Gaza.

He has spoken eloquently about his hope for the emergence of a peaceful Palestinian state. He has also urged Mr. Sharon to freeze settlement building on the West Bank. But until now, Mr. Bush has chosen not to expend much U.S. political capital in pursuit of those goals.

With the Gaza withdrawal, Mr. Bush sees the opportunity to make Gaza a test case. If the Palestinians can establish a democracy there, with international aid pouring in, this will undercut terrorists and persuade Israel to negotiate over the West Bank.

The problem with this dream: Democracy can't be established in Gaza under current conditions. Its people will still be imprisoned in their tiny space; Israel will retain control over borders, air and sea space for security reasons. Investors won't arrive until the broader dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is resolved. Unemployment will remain high.

With settlements expanding and peace talks postponed, West Bank Palestinians will continue to fight. So will militant groups in Gaza, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Gaza can't be dealt with separately from the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas' dream is that he can persuade those two groups to keep a truce while he bolsters his popularity among Palestinians by dispersing international aid. He'll wait for international pressure to force Israel to bargain over a state.

The problem with Mr. Abbas' dream: His position is very weak. He has no public support for a crackdown on Hamas so long as West Bank settlements grow and there are no talks about a Palestinian state. He must hold parliamentary elections in January in which Hamas is likely to do well.

The misguided dreams of these three leaders are likely to lead to a collapse of the Gaza experiment within a year. Israeli sources are already predicting a third Palestinian intifada - against settlers on the West Bank. There's only one person who may be in a position to head off such a disaster: Mr. Bush, if he recognizes that Gaza and the West Bank are inextricably linked. He is in a position to push for a new framework for talks and to press both Israel and the Palestinians to do their part.

Otherwise, the Gaza pullout is bound to boomerang.

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

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