The Disengagement Summer Post-withdrawal, Sharon Faces Challenges on More Than One Front

With its planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank virtually a fait accompli, Israel is bracing for the morning after. Israeli decision makers expect challenges on several fronts: international, Palestinian and domestic. The first challenge could be a call for a new international conference to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. France first suggested the idea six months ago, and it was later picked up by Russia and the United States.

Israel remains adamantly opposed.

Israeli officials argue that before weighty peace issues can be discussed, the Palestinians must show they can run their affairs in the Gaza Strip and prevent terrorism. The Israelis assert that a premature peace parley could do more harm than good by signaling to the Palestinians that the process can move forward even if they don’t carry out their promised security, economic and political reforms or stop attacks against Israel.

Western diplomats, however, fear the process could bog down unless strong international pressure is exerted on both sides. An international conference, they say, would be part of that effort.

In the Israeli view, the key to future progress lies in the emergence of a credible Palestinian peace partner. Israel’s post-withdrawal strategy, therefore, will be to urge the international community to focus on creating a Palestinian leadership strong enough to run Gaza, prevent terror and conduct meaningful peace negotiations with Israel.

The best way to do this, the Israelis say, is to boost the Palestinian economy.

Instead of rushing into an ill-timed peace conference, the international community should turn its energy to raising funds for investment in Gaza, Israeli officials argue. The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told JTA that Israel is fully supportive of the efforts by former World Bank President James Wolfensohn to put together an international investment package and of the pledge by the world’s richest nations at the recent G-8 conference in Scotland to raise $3 billion a year for Gaza for each of the next three years.

“It is in our interest that Gaza be a success story,” Regev says. “Because if there is a ‘disengagement dividend’ and ordinary Gazans feel tangible economic benefits after our withdrawal, that could help create the climate for the emergence of a genuine peace partner for Israel.”

For Israel, Regev says, “partner” is the key word: “If we see that we have a partner,” he declares, “we will need no conferences or prodding to move ahead.”

But there is a dilemma for Israel: How to enable Palestinian Authority forces to become strong enough to exercise control over Gaza, without constituting a security threat to Israel itself?

In her recent visit to the area, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was adamant about supplying the Palestinian Authority with armored personnel carriers and light weapons to keep the peace or win a possible showdown with terrorist groups such as Hamas.

Israel, however, wants strict controls on the Palestinian buildup, fearing that the guns could be turned on Jerusalem or Tel Aviv — or used to carry out terrorist attacks, given the P.A. security forces’ deep involvement in terrorism during the intifada. Since he took office in January, one of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ main strategies for dealing with terrorist groups has been to offer their members uniforms in the official P.A. forces.

On the Palestinian front, the Israelis see two scenarios: Gaza succeeding and becoming the basis for negotiations over Palestinian statehood; Gaza failing and becoming part of a new intifada against Israel, focused mainly on the West Bank.

In the first case, Regev says, Israel will be ready for further withdrawals; in the latter, the international community will understand why Israel cannot be expected to hand over more land.

Regev says Israel will seek international endorsement for the fact that it has withdrawn fully from Gaza, just as it did after its May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon. That would deny the Palestinians any pretext for continuing to wage war from Gaza.

On the domestic front, the big question is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s future in his Likud Party, where he can’t count on a majority in key institutions such as the party’s Central Committee or Knesset faction.

Even if Sharon were to beat off a leadership challenge from Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he would be unlikely to enter the next Knesset with a more supportive faction.

The answer for Sharon could be to engineer what is often referred to as the “big bang” of Israeli politics, in which the Likud’s more moderate wing joins with the Shinui Party and moderate parts of the Labor Party to form a strong centrist alliance, with Sharon at its head.

Sharon denies that he has anything like this in mind. But shrewd observers of the Israeli political scene point out that he did nothing to bring back ex-Likudniks during a recent party-membership drive. Since the party leader is elected in a primary that is open to all Likud members, these observers conclude that Sharon has already decided not to run against Netanyahu within the Likud and instead to find a leadership spot for himself outside the party.

Either way, politicians and pundits predict early elections in the first half of 2006, and the key issue will be Israel’s next move after the Gaza withdrawal.

Hawks such as Netanyahu will advocate digging in behind the new lines; Sharon’s people will say it depends on what happens in Gaza; Labor leaders will push for further withdrawals from the West Bank; and further to the left, the Yahad leader Yossi Beilin will revive the so-called Geneva initiative as a model for a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

The domestic debate in Israel could influence moves by the international community: whether the call is to proceed step-by-step according to the internationally approved “road map” peace plan; to attempt a major leap based on something like the Geneva initiative, which points to possible solutions on core issues like borders, Jerusalem and refugees; or to leave the way open for more unilateral moves by Israel.

But the most pressing issue on Israel’s domestic agenda after the withdrawal is likely to be the rift between national religious Jews and the state. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the spiritual father of religious Zionism, saw the state as “the beginning of redemption,” a necessary step leading toward the coming of the Messiah.

Consequently, the movement always was strongly Zionist and supportive of state institutions, especially the army. Now there’s a debate among religious Zionists as to how much a state that gives land to its enemies and evacuates Jewish settlements is fulfilling that purpose.

The way all these complex issues play out over the new few months will determine the success or failure of Sharon’s bold withdrawal plan.

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