Text size

Early this morning, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will set off on an urgent mission - to find Israel a nanny who can take over the job of dealing with the chaos in the Gaza Strip.

Until recently, the prevailing notion in Israel's corridors of power rejected any international intervention in the security arrangements on its borders. This principle was violated after the Second Lebanon War; with the deployment of an international force on Israel's northern border Israel now seeks a similar arrangement along the Philadelphi Route in the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, prime ministers throughout Israel's history have warned against "internationalizing the conflict" with the Palestinians, arguing that the conflict is local and should be solved by direct negotiations between the parties. Now Olmert is rushing off to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a desperate attempt to find partners, and if possible replacements, for Israel's leadership in the complex and dangerous task necessitated by the dramatic events in the Palestinian Authority.

The violence raging in the Gaza Strip (which is beginning to spill over into the West Bank) is above all the doing of the Palestinians themselves, and it reflects the rules of the game in the Arab world for deciding political disagreements. That said, Israel will find it difficult to argue convincingly that it did not contribute significantly to the deterioration, both in its fundamental attitude toward the Palestinians and in its response to Hamas' victory in the 2006 elections.

Israel is in no small way responsible for events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, by dint of being the state that has controlled these territories since 1967. The disengagement did not absolve Israel of responsibility for what happens in Gaza. It is perceived by the international community as being responsible, and it continues to observe customs arrangements with the strip, which it continues to provide with basic goods and services including electricity and water.

Furthermore, Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians, from the period of the "village leagues" under Mustafa Dudin to the Yasser Arafat era and to the time of Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, has had a significant effect on developments in the PA. So when the Israeli prime minister calls on the world to handle the serious crisis that has arisen in the PA, he can expect to be disappointed: This hot potato is mainly Israel's problem (and that of the Palestinians themselves, of course).

Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip will reinforce Israelis' belief in the rightness of their ways, both on the right and left. The right will argue that the takeover stems from the Oslo Accords and the Gaza withdrawal; the left will say we are reaping the whirlwind sown by successive Israeli governments that arrogantly imposed their wills on the Palestinians, violated their commitments and declared their desire for peace while creating facts on the ground that made such an agreement impossible.

The decent souls in both camps will ask themselves whether their positions add up to a proven recipe for solving the conflict, and whether there is some truth in the way the opposing ideological camp reads the map. Public debate will continue over how much the Israeli occupation is feeding the fire in the Palestinian street, or whether this is nothing more than a necessary evil that represents Israel's right to defend itself from the currents running through the Arab and Islamic world in general and Palestinian society in particular.

Either way, the bewilderment in Jerusalem in the face of the latest developments in Gaza, and the world's desperate plea for help, reflect Israel's fundamental failure in coping with the "Palestinian problem." For 40 years, the state has not spelled out its goal in this regard. Successive governments have preferred to "manage" the conflict instead of trying to end it. They reacted to events, improvised responses (including the disengagement) and avoided making a decision over the desired solution.

The escalation of the conflict, its increasing complexity and the increasing distress it imposes on Israelis indicate that the roots of the problem must be dealt with. Instead of chasing after events, we must try to shape them. To do so, a goal must be defined between the positions of the right and the left. It could be that the most urgent task at hand is conducting the national debate over a final arrangement, and to decide on it now.