Life After Gaza

The withdrawal of Israeli troops and the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza, after 38 years of occupation, is the most recent proof of the limits of military power, even when that power is overwhelming.

Now is the time to take stock of the lessons learned from the years of occupation and resistance in order to understand what Israelis and Palestinians should do next.

To begin with, it is imperative to understand how much credit Palestinians can credibly claim for the Israeli withdrawal. True, Palestinian resistance and sacrifices were a contributing factor in Ariel Sharon's decision to reverse a policy he had espoused for decades. But it would be a mistake to attribute the Israeli withdrawal exclusively to Palestinian militancy. After all, this bittersweet Israeli action was neither a clear result of military defeat nor a consequence of political negotiations.

But unilateralism is not a rational long-term and effective policy, for it will not lead to a genuine and lasting peace in the Middle East. Just as President Bush has discovered in Iraq, Sharon will also be forced to acknowledge the limits of his strategy.

Unilateralism seems very expedient to shortsighted politicians, for it obviates the need for what they perceive as the mess of actual negotiations -- that is, meeting their counterparts face to face and discovering the human results of their policies. Going it alone also seems politically advantageous domestically, because leaders can decide how much and how far they want to carry out a particular policy.

To be fair, unilateralism is convenient not only for a reluctant Israeli prime minister who does not wish to make substantial compromises during negotiations; it is also attractive to hard-line Palestinians who regard multilateralism as a means of pressing them to make unpopular concessions.

In any case, the day after the completion of the Gaza withdrawal, Israelis and Palestinians will be confronted with important unresolved questions. There is no doubt that the evacuation of Jewish settlers in areas that Israelis consider part of their God-given territory represents a huge ideological reversal. But after years of preaching and practicing one of Zionism's main tenets, will the removal of settlements continue in the West Bank, or will this be a one-time exception?

Palestinians, for their part, will be expected to answer questions -- in deeds, not just in words -- about their ability to build a modern pluralistic state. How will the Palestinian body politic deal with the growing power of the Islamic movements that undoubtedly will expect a significant share of power in post-withdrawal Gaza?

The international community also will have to answer some key questions. According to the Palestinian Economic Council for Reconstruction and Development, annual per capita income in Gaza continues to average roughly $700, while Israelis enjoy incomes averaging a $16,000 per capita. In the absence of relatively well-paying jobs, what will happen to the lines of unemployed Gazans? The potential flight of employment seekers -- a formidable force worldwide -- is only one problem. More immediately, if Gazan families are not well fed, the recurrence of cross-border violence, if not the eruption of a third intifada, will only be a matter of time.

While the economic situation in Gaza is a critical issue, the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be determined mainly by the next steps in the peace process. Permanent-status issues concerning borders, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and refugees must be dealt with bilaterally. Any serious observer of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will no doubt acknowledge that there can be no unilateral solution to these issues.

As for the peace process's multilateral guarantors, the United States and its quartet partners -- the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia-have failed to provide even the most basic facts regarding Israel's withdrawal or how it relates to the "road map" agreed in 2003. They cannot continue to sit on the sidelines. Washington's quixotic decision to call Israel's unilateral move part of the road map has failed to convince many Palestinians. The prevailing opinion among Palestinians is that the road map will be put into deep freeze once the Israelis complete their Gaza withdrawal.

But the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, their leaders, and the international community must all respond to the challenges that will follow. Most importantly, the future of the conflict and the chances for genuine peace in the region will depend on understanding the limits of offensive military power, defensive resistance, and unilateralism. Serious face-to-face talks, in accordance to international law and with the help of the international community, are the only way forward.

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