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The emerging tactic of isolating the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip and bolstering Fatah rule in the West Bank is as shortsighted as it is simplistic. While it may serve the immediate interests of the Olmert government, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and the Bush administration, it does not suggest a realistic plan for stabilization, let alone a workable trajectory for accommodation.
In order not to miss yet another - perhaps the last - chance for a permanent settlement, a much more refined, comprehensive, regionally-based and internationally-backed strategy to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must urgently be designed and implemented.
The reasoning behind the current separation approach is obvious: The violent Hamas takeover in Gaza presents an imminent danger to all its neighbors and furnishes a precedent with alarming regional consequences. It must be tackled vigorously and directly.
The logic behind the separation approach is, however, less compelling. The complete blockade of Gaza, coupled with efforts to bring about tangible improvements in the West Bank, are meant to increase popular pressure on Hamas and, ultimately, to hasten its demise. This type of thinking ignores the fact that precisely such a policy has backfired in the very recent past. More seriously, it overlooks the inherent and inviolable connection between the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank. If what happened in the former is not to repeat itself in the latter, then any policy must treat both together.
The challenges now facing Mahmoud Abbas and the newly-appointed Salaam Fayad government are truly daunting. Although some voices calling for revenge for the humiliating defeat can still be heard in Fatah circles, there is a growing realization that legitimacy depends on the rehabilitation of the structures and capabilities of the Palestinian Authority.
SUCH A consolidation requires, first, a concrete and continuous amelioration of the situation on the ground. While the elimination of the rampant corruption in official bodies is in the new government's hands, the easing of daily life is very much a joint effort. It depends not only on substantial financial injections, but also on increased mobility essential both to meet economic and social needs and to reestablish central political control. The lifting of the hundreds of internal checkpoints is therefore more than essential.
Second, a diplomatic channel must be carved out with a view to achieving a lasting agreement in the foreseeable future. No Palestinian government, however much supported by the international community, can continue to assume responsibility without the authority that comes with the promise of independent statehood.
AND THIRD, the long, tedious and absolutely vital task of institution-building must be addressed after too many years of abuse, neglect and destruction. The dismantling of armed militias and the reassertion of a monopoly over the use of force is a crucial step in this direction. But so, too, is the reconstruction of the systematically assailed civilian administration - from education and welfare to planning and taxation.
The successful pursuit of these institution-fortifying processes depends on steady progress on the immediate and diplomatic fronts. It is doubtful whether this can be achieved without the restoration of confidence in the leadership. The release of Marwan Barghouti is important for immediate stabilization. Lasting legitimacy, however, will lie in the capacity of the new government to pursue the demand of the Palestinian people in both the West Bank and Gaza for self-determination and a dignified existence alongside Israel.
This tripartite Palestinian agenda cannot be carried out without the full cooperation first of Israel, and then of regional and international actors. It is their preferred program, as well.
Ehud Olmert has clung to recent events in Palestine as a lifeline for his personal political survival. His willingness to introduce some measures to ease the situation in the West Bank is far too hesitant and partial. These lack the political will needed to promote fundamental Israeli concerns (and will hardly increase his political longevity in the face of pending corruption charges, if not the fallout from the final Winograd Committee report).
Since Israel has absolutely no desire to recapture Gaza and cannot afford any further deterioration in the West Bank, it clearly has a vested interest in leveraging current developments to achieve a sustainable resolution. The present promotion of the separation plan is consequently tragically self-defeating. A bold Israeli move, rather than yet another outright rejection of progress on final status talks - proposed this time by Condoleezza Rice - is an existential imperative.
Egypt and Jordan, not to speak of the Quartet and especially the United States, can only benefit from such a move. They must provide a convincing answer to the allure of religious militancy. The growing signs of turmoil in Lebanon and around Syria give an added sense of urgency to this quest. The unresolved Palestinian conundrum has now assumed broad regional proportions and requires collective action.
Any specific policy today must be directly linked to a common, agreed-upon goal of advancing a comprehensive settlement. The Arab League Initiative proffers just such a framework. Violent Islamic extremism will not be subdued by a tactic of purposeful division; it will only be defeated by the solidification of a vibrant and just alternative. The promise of a physically, materially and humanly secure future rests on a holistic strategy based on the Palestinian Authority's ability to negotiate on behalf of all the Palestinian people and partners willing to do so.
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