Analysis: Where to turn?

Whether Israel acts unilaterally or negotiates, the one road that it can't bypass is economic.

gaza food 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
gaza food 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The refrain is old already, but it bears repeating for those in Jerusalem, Washington, and anywhere else who would rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend otherwise: There are 1.3 million Palestinians holed up in the 360 sq. kilometer strip of coastal land called Gaza who are angry and destitute and becoming more so by the day. Providing Gazans with the basics of health care and food will stave off a humanitarian catastrophe that the Israeli government says is in no one's interest. But preventing a further radicalization of these people - and probably their 2.4 million brothers and sisters in the West Bank - against Israel is another matter. That is the danger when you are perceived as the one responsible for making proud Arab men sell their wives' jewelry to pay electric bills, take their children to United Nations-run soup kitchens so that they do not go hungry, and block the funding for their jobs leaving them nothing to do all day but simmer in a rage and listen to Hamas-affiliated imams suggest how they channel that aggression. The economic and political siege Israel and the international community have laid on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority may also help to usher in a Palestinian civil war, though that remains less certain, since there are other root causes of the now daily and escalating interfactional violence in these streets. What is certain, polls show, is that the siege on the PA has increased support for Hamas as the terrorists-cum-national leaders capitalize on Palestinian indignation (right or wrong, it is what they feel) that their elections alone are not approved of by the democratic world at large. It has also led to the very real prospect that the PA itself, not just the Hamas party that leads it, will fall by virtue of an inability to carry out the basic functions of government. Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention Europe, the United States, and everyone else who is involved in the deadly Middle East chess game, can debate who is actually responsible for this situation - Hamas, by virtue of its repugnant stance toward Israel and its clear willingness, like Fatah before it, to use its own people as pawns in political brinkmanship, or Israel as the occupier and oppressor of legitimate Palestinian rights. But from an Israeli standpoint, convincing itself and the international community that the former is the case is far less important than acting on the next question - "What are we going to do about it?" - for two reasons. First, all those parties previously mentioned will never be able to agree on who is responsible. The closing by the Palestinians of the former Gush Katif greenhouses illustrates this well. Is it Israel's fault they failed because Israel closed Karni for political purposes and the Palestinians could not ship out the produce? Or is it the Palestinians' fault they failed because militants forced Israel to close Karni to protect its own people? Every side in the political equation will have a different answer, and reconciling them all is moot because the greenhouse project did fail and now Israel must deal with the ramifications of that - 6,000 more Palestinians who will not have work come the end of this month and blame Israel for it. Second, despite the desperate wishes of many Israelis of all political persuasions, the nearly 4 million Palestinians living within scant kilometers of the 7 million Israelis are not going anywhere. Israel built a fence around Gaza and it is constructing one around the West Bank. Though an excellent deterrent for would-be suicide bombers, those fences will not absolve Israel of the responsibility for the Palestinian people under international law. Israelis may not have to see the tattered clothes of Palestinian children and hear the vitriolic words of hate directed at its citizens from many of their parents, but absent a final settlement, their growing numbers will continue to drag on the collective resources and consciousness of the Jewish state in perpetuity. When Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it inherited not a friendly, but a mostly docile population. Ever tightening restrictions placed upon the Palestinians throughout the nearly four decades since may, especially recently, limit the terror they have been and will be able to inflict upon Israel. But it is clear that punitive measures, far from making the Palestinians submit to Israeli will, may instead have served to push their society in more extreme directions. The only possible exception to this would be a knock-out blow that Israel refuses to deliver, citing its own ethics even more than negative judgment from the international community which would surely follow. ASSUMING THAT Israel refuses to resort to suppressive tactics akin to those employed by some of its neighboring regimes, there are two main directions Israeli leaders have tabled for pushing the state into its next phase of maturity. The first path is that of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The name of this path has evolved from "disengagement" to "convergence" to "realignment" as the politics of the region have shifted and details of the plans have followed suit. However, those changes are at the tactical level. From a strategic point of view, this overall philosophy has been called "unilateralism" because it sought to define a mode of operating free of the Palestinians. But "unilateralism" it is not, since even now there is coordination between Israel and the PA on providing services like electricity, water and telephone communication, and the operation of the Erez and Karni crossings here in Gaza. There is also extensive political coordination with the US and EU and it goes without saying that Israel would not have withdrawn from Gaza, nor will it evacuate settlements in the West Bank, without the nod from those powers. A more accurate and honest name for this strategy is "conflict management." This mode of operation is based on one overriding principle: that real peace and a final settlement of the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians is not possible in the near future. Supporters of the conflict management philosophy have various reasons for drawing this conclusion, but in essence they agree that Israel should hunker down for probably the next 20 years, steel itself for the attacks that will come, and wait for the day when the Palestinians are truly ready to embrace living side-by-side. The tactics needed to implement this strategy include what Israel is engaged in today: the building of fences and walls; the economic and political siege of Hamas and perhaps the regime that follows; continued operations against the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian territories; and the (assumed) further separation of Israeli and Palestinian populations. This strategy, concocted by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, has proven successful in reducing the horrific yet non-existentially threatening attacks Israelis became all to accustomed to during the second intifada. But it has failed, and seems doomed toward further failure with the more important task of convincing the Palestinian population that violent resistance will get them nowhere. The rising support for Hamas and the dozens of potentially fatal attacks the IDF thwarts each week indicate as much. Additionally, if the further radicalization and Islamization of the Palestinian people pushes them in the direction of al-Qaeda, which may already be operating in Gaza, Israel faces the specter of Palestinian terrorism transforming from the political to the purely nihilistic nature (it may be there to a degree already, but it can get worse) along the lines of what is now taking place in Iraq. In essence, the IDF may be able to stop 95 percent of suicide bombers, but the chances of large, possibly existentially threatening attacks on Israel from groups associated with Iran and the global jihad network could rise. The second strategy, being forwarded by Defense Minister Amir Peretz, is simple. Talk to PA President Mahmoud Abbas now and try, try, try to reach a final status agreement. The benefits of that strategy are as potentially enormous as are its risks. On the one hand, if Olmert (or whoever was leading the talks) and Abbas could reach and implement an agreement where Barak and Arafat failed, the situation as it stands could vastly improve, even to the point of achieving peace. On the other hand, even if an agreement were reached and approved by a Palestinian referendum, trusting Hamas to disarm and live up to its obligations is a big roll of the dice and could leave Israel much more exposed to attacks than it is today. There is also the very real possibility that were negotiations to fail again, the region could be thrown into the depths of a third intifada, the scope of which remains cloudy but nevertheless highly uninviting. WHICHEVER PATH Israel chooses, it is on the streets of Gaza more than anywhere else that its success will be determined. For despite the damage they do and the headlines they grab, the terrorists, militants and firebrands are still outnumbered there and in the West Bank by the fathers and mothers whose first order of business - no matter whom they voted for - is putting bread on the table for their families. When asked what they were doing with the loans the Bank of Palestine was giving to PA civil servants last week, the policemen and preventative security officers gave a unanimous first answer: buying food. The same simple goal was in the minds of the 13 Palestinian Border Police found hiding in a construction site in Har Homa Monday night. "I just need the work to help my family," Ali Salam, 23, said during his brief, road-side detention. "The key to the success of anything that Israel wants to push forward in terms of its own interests with the Palestinians and the region is the issue of long-term economic viability of the Palestinian entity," said Deborah Housen-Couriel, a senior analyst with the Re'ut think tank in Tel Aviv. That was the long-term premise Israel accepted when it signed on to the Agreement on Movement and Access brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November. But as kassams continued to reign down on the southern cities from Gaza, the government reneged on its promise to provide safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank and keep the Karni crossing open. While the April attack and other threats on Karni showed, said Housen-Couriel, that one should never underestimate the Palestinians' penchant for shooting themselves in the foot, Israel's response to them showed glaring deficiencies in its own strategic thinking. "Never underestimate either the Israeli ability not to see the win-win [scenarios with the Palestinians] and the end game," she said. "You can start off from the point of saying 'It's their fault and the closures were justified,' but why not leverage the opportunity and say 'There is another way to do this'?" That road less traveled, Housen-Couriel said, begins with Israel and the international community investing in the Palestinian economy - not by continuing to fund the PA and projects that, though well-intentioned, encourage Palestinian dependency on foreign actors, but betting on private Palestinians with solid business ideas. Under this strategy, which a growing number of experts are saying is a necessity if either political track is to succeed, forms of microcredit would be extended from Israel to Palestinian entrepreneurs. Private partnerships would be sought out which tie the two economies together, and ideally, Jordan and Egypt as well. There is particular promise, Housen-Couriel said, in the IT area given the Palestinians' status as one of the most internet-savvy Arab populations, and the fact that it does not necessarily depend on freedom of movement. Such enterprising has the added benefit of cutting down on Palestinian corruption no matter what party is in power by passing less money through the government. During his time in the region, former Quartet special envoy James Wolfensohn focused many efforts on this subject, coordinating with the World Bank on the means to achieve exactly this kind of mutually beneficial relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Fed up with the lack of movement on these issues, and increasingly feeling his time was being wasted, Wolfensohn quit the Middle East, but the work is ready to be implemented. The alternative - Israel's continued insistence that political progress be followed only far down the road by economic benefits - means the ideas of both Olmert and Peretz may meet the same fate as the fruit produced in the doomed Gaza greenhouses. They will whither on the vine.