Analyze This: It's time for a second look at 'Gaza first'

It is clear Gaza isn't an obstacle that can be left for last.

gaza human chain 224 (photo credit: AP)
gaza human chain 224
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spent Tuesday paying a solidarity visit to a community that has suffered the fear and terror of Katyusha attacks, the last one of which came in the summer of 2006. Olmert decided to head north to Julis, just east of Acre, where he attended a gathering of senior Druse leaders. He certainly wasn't lacking for political company in the area. Defense Minister Ehud Barak also traveled to the Western Galilee, visiting Shlomi to dedicate an air raid shelter and to meet with municipal leaders from other northern front-line communities. And as it happens, just down the road to the coast, President Shimon Peres was in Nahariya dedicating a new emergency room at the local hospital. Presumably these visits were all planned well in advance and the timing was purely coincidental. Still, there's at least the appearance of incongruity when three of the nation's top leaders head up north on a day when the rockets from Gaza continue to pose an imminent threat to communities in the South, and just a day after the IDF's withdrawal from the Strip. Perhaps there's a message here that even now, after more than 18 months of quiet following the Second Lebanon War, we must remain vigilant so the events of 2006 don't repeat themselves in the North. Or maybe by heading up there our leaders can at least spend one day distracted from the fact that those events are in fact happening again to some degree in the South. But the impact, literally and politically, of the rockets from Gaza is no longer an issue that should be put off for even one more minute, let alone a day. As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns to Israel, it is the current status of Gaza - and not the future dispensation of the West Bank - that occupies the ranking position on the agenda of her discussions here. It wasn't supposed to be this way. At Annapolis, and during the follow-up visits here by Rice and US President George W. Bush, Gaza almost seemed an afterthought. Pressed on how Israel and Fatah could possibly attain a two-state solution while Gaza remained firmly in Hamas hands, the US leadership insisted that the "vision of hope" embodied in a final-status agreement would enable the more moderate Palestinian forces to gain the upper hand there over the Islamists. As for the Israeli side, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reminded the international diplomatic community here on Tuesday that Jerusalem believed "the success of this peace process depends on the determination of the leaders of both sides not to let the goings-on outside of the negotiating room enter the negotiating room." Alas, in breaking off the talks with Israel this week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made clear that this was not a feasible paradigm for him to live with - or more accurately, politically survive. And truth be told, neither is it for the current Israeli leadership, especially if the scope of attacks from Hamas continue to widen. It is now more than abundantly clear - and should have been from the start of the Annapolis process - that Gaza is not an obstacle that can be circumvented and left for last. If anything, the opposite is true: In the past, both at the start of the Oslo process and during the 2005 disengagement, the logical beginning step was "Gaza first" - because it was in the Strip that Israel could most easily withdraw to the 1967 lines and provide the Palestinians with a contiguous piece of territory entirely under their authority, as a testing ground of their capability for national sovereignty. While that experiment hasn't been a notable success, to say the least, it's a delusion to think the current situation there can be more or less put aside while the same experiment is repeated in the West Bank. For one thing, Hamas has made clear it won't let Israel do that, as long as it can manufacture its own rockets, or obtain even deadlier ones from Iran. And for another, it will use the Strip as a base to assiduously undermine the Fatah leadership in Ramallah, to the point where neither Abbas nor his successors will ever be in a position to make a final deal with Israel. Livni made a belated admission of these facts Tuesday, when she said: "Let's assume that we reach a peace treaty. I hope so; this is what I'm devoted to. How can Abu Mazen [Abbas] and the others control the Gaza Strip in the future without internal fighting? They cannot. So to turn a blind eye to the situation in Gaza is something we cannot afford - and 'we' is Israel, 'we' is Abu Mazen and the others, and 'we' is the international community." Whether Israel and the PA reach that agreement is irrelevant to the fortunes of Hamas in Gaza; the Islamist movement doesn't rule the area by popular consent, but the power of its weapons and its willingness to use them on its own people no less mercilessly than against Israelis. And anyway, that agreement won't be reached as long as Hamas retains the power to strike at Israel with impunity. So as tempting as it might be to look beyond the suffering of the civilians in Sderot, Ashkelon and those being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza to bigger and brighter visions elsewhere, now is the time that all of Livni's "we" - especially Rice, who has invested so much of her future status in achieving some kind of progress here - must turn their focus preeminently on Gaza first, and the task of changing the reality on the ground there, before whatever precious little is left of the peace process heads permanently south. [email protected]