EVEN AS ISRAEL’S anguished self-confrontation unfolds in Gaza with the army’s dismantling of two dozen thriving towns and agricultural villages, Palestinian leaders are demanding more. This withdrawal is only the beginning, they promise their celebrating followers. Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Yet whether Israel ultimately cedes all that the Palestinians say they want will depend on the Palestinians themselves. A wary Israeli public needs to be convinced that the Palestinians want to build their own state more than they want to destroy the Jewish state. Gaza is the test case for that open question.
In the coming months, a Palestine taking sovereign control of territory must begin confronting the terrorist regime that has grown in Gaza. It must wrest foreign aid away from militias and private bank accounts and put it into schools and hospitals. Its leaders must dismantle the refugee camps that have been a permanent condition of Gaza life and resettle their residents in decent housing. Finally, it must temper the culture of hatred against the Jewish people that has become routine in Gaza’s schools, mosques and media.
If the Palestinian leadership initiates that difficult process of physical and spiritual renewal, then the Israeli majority -- which craves peace far more than biblical borders -- will support negotiations over extending Palestinian sovereignty. And even if, as the Palestinians suspect, Ariel Sharon intends Gaza to be his first and last withdrawal, the Israeli majority will insist on substantive talks. No Israeli leader can survive politically if the electorate perceives him to be blocking a chance for peace.
Few Israelis, though, really believe that the Palestinian leadership is ready to live in peace with a Jewish state, no matter what the borders. Instead, most expect sovereign Gaza to become a base for further rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Many Israelis assume that a Palestinian leadership aware of the world’s expectations will initially control Gaza violence. But even they expect terror to intensify in the West Bank.
In either scenario, Israel may well resort again to unilateral action, this time imposing de facto borders in the West Bank as part of a strategic withdrawal. Israel, even if the peace process collapses, won’t annex the entire West Bank, for the same reason it is now quitting Gaza: to prevent the inclusion of several million Palestinians into Israeli society and save itself as a Jewish and democratic state. But a withdrawal in the West Bank under defensive conditions would be very different from the current withdrawal. Unlike in Gaza, there would be no pullback to 1967 borders. In drawing its West Bank border, Israel would attempt to include the maximum number of settlers and the minimum of Palestinians on its side of the security fence. Those borders would include all of Jerusalem: Joint sovereignty over Jerusalem with a Palestinian government that does not control terror and continues to teach its people that Israel has no right to exist is a prescription not for peacefully sharing the city but for destroying it.
Such Israeli unilateralism on the West Bank could be forestalled by Palestinian reassurance of peaceful intent. Yet even mainstream Palestinian leaders fail to deny the boasts of the fundamentalist Hamas that “the blood of our martyrs” drove Israelis out of the Gaza settlements. The implication is clear: Further Israeli concessions depend on more Palestinian and Israeli blood.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is doing nothing to counter the notion that terror pays. Abbas should be telling his people the truth, that terror will only increase the Israeli need to widen the territorial swath around its coastal plain, which is within easy missile range of West Bank hilltops.
Ironically, had the Palestinians opted five years ago for negotiations instead of terror, they would have gotten almost all of what they now say they want. In December 2000, following the failure of the Camp David negotiations, President Clinton proposed a Palestinian state on over 96% of the Israeli-held territories, with a capital in East Jerusalem. Palestinians would have gotten three out of four of the Old City’s historic quarters. Israel said yes; the Palestinians said no.
In granting the Palestinians statehood, Sharon has imposed the cruelty of responsibility. If they end up with a truncated West Bank, they will have no one to blame but themselves.