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The election season is now behind us in Israel and among the Palestinians. Israel's election has produced one unmistakable result: The policy of Israel's next government - even at a time when its composition remains unclear - will be one of separation. With a rightist bloc totaling only 51 votes, there is no way for those who oppose separation to block it as a policy or as a principle.
But what does separation mean in practical terms and is it likely to emerge any time soon? Perhaps, the first point to understand is that separation will not be unilateral. True, it is based on a premise that Israel will separate itself from Palestinians with or without Palestinian agreement, but agreement is seen as unlikely given the perception that there is no Palestinian partner.
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) the president of the Palestinian Authority, is seen as willing but unable to deliver anything. And Hamas is unwilling to negotiate anything, even if its capabilities are yet to be determined. Still, Israel will not carry out separation unilaterally. It will seek understandings with the United States - and through the United States - at least some understandings with the international community.
In discussions with the United States, the new Israeli government will seek tangible recognition of the settlement blocs and the "permanent borders" that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared he plans to establish by 2010.
The April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was suggestive but certainly not definitive. It spoke about Israeli "population centers" that created new realities that needed to be taken into account in permanent status negotiations. However, it also said that the permanent borders must be agreed - thus giving Palestinians a veto.
Euphemisms won't be sufficient this time around. Judging from the route of the separation barrier and the likelihood that Israel will evacuate all the settlements east of it, Israel will be evacuating roughly 63,000 settlers in what is the heartland of Jewish history. For such a historic, far-reaching move, the government will be seeking concrete commitments and recognition, and not clever formulations leaving space for different interpretations.
WHAT IS the Bush administration likely to do? It is - as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already indicated - likely to be open and encouraging about separation, seeing an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank as an historic accomplishment. But no one should assume that such talks between the new Israeli government and the administration will be quick or easy.
Several factors will make these discussions complicated and time-consuming. First, unless there are concrete understandings with the Palestinians, the Israeli military is unlikely to withdraw from the West Bank. The prospect of weapons - especially longer-range rockets - being smuggled into the territory capable of hitting Israeli cities and communities from areas in the West Bank means the IDF will retain a presence. Since the IDF will no longer need to protect the settlements and the roads leading to them, the presence is likely to be greatly reduced but it won't disappear. (The fact that a Katyusha rocket was fired from Gaza this past week is a reminder of the danger that will exist after withdrawal.)
Second, Israel's definition of what it wants to retain geographically is likely to be an issue with the administration. Creating geographic contiguity to Ma'aleh Adumim in "E1" runs the risk of separating the northern part of the West Bank from the southern part of it. Other areas, whether in the Jordan Valley or near Hebron or by Ariel, may be seen by the administration as undermining the territorial viability of a prospective Palestinian state, and may trigger a strong effort to revise Israeli plans.
Third, even if the Israeli withdrawal included the military and produced a largely contiguous area for Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians will claim that Israel is annexing territory that should be theirs. And, in such circumstances, the administration's partners in the Quartet (the EU, the Russians, and the UN) will be reluctant to recognize Israeli annexation. Is the administration going to be able to bring them along or be willing to go it alone if it cannot?
Certainly not if the administration believes it cannot sell the separation as something that could make for two states eventually coexisting side by side. At this juncture, such a vision seems unreal with a Hamas prime minister and a Hamas-dominated cabinet and legislative council. The irony of separation is that so long as Hamas dominates the Palestinian government it will reject any borders with Israel.
ABU MAZEN accepts Israel's right to exist and believes in a two-state solution, but will also reject separation as one more Israeli imposition. He wants negotiations, and Ehud Olmert has already declared that the new Israeli government will test to see if negotiations remain possible.
And, here, the administration may find its own opening for how to proceed and to create a basis either for gaining the backing of the Quartet or justifying its own support for separation. The administration, once the Israeli government has been formed, should begin parallel discussions with it and with Abu Mazen. It should see what Abu Mazen is capable of doing: Can he negotiate anything meaningful with the Israelis and deliver on it? If not, is he capable of coordinating on Israeli withdrawal in any measurable way? In either case, Hamas would have to change and go along with what has been discussed or coordinated - again there would have to be tangible demonstrations of delivery.
If it is clear that Abu Mazen cannot deliver anything meaningful, we should be prepared to announce that we (and others) will support separation and will recognize the new borders as political.
Until now, the American position has been that the separation barrier constitutes a security, not a political, measure. It could be treated as a political border, with the understanding that so long as Palestinians are run by those who reject Israel and/or are incapable of fulfilling their obligations, this border will be recognized by us and others.
If nothing else, this will put the Palestinians on notice as to what is at stake for them, even as Israel understands that the new border may not be immutable but is likely to last for a very long time.
The writer, a senior diplomat in the first-Bush and Clinton administrations, is director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.