Gaza and Jericho First - Again

In the absence of any real definition, there will be no strategic, historic or ideological significance in Sharon's readiness to withdraw from Gaza - or in the flags waving at Sharm.

The flags of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt are very familiar with the routine. Once every few months or years, when a historic event is held at Sharm el-Sheikh, they are pulled out of old boxes and hung for several hours on metal poles to mark the convening of another summit. When the meeting ends, they are folded up again and smeared with another layer of cynicism that preserves them well - until the next event.

Another such event awaits on Tuesday. It will be a bit less festive than the one held in June 2003 in Aqaba with President George Bush, Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah and Ariel Sharon, a bit less promising that the Sharm event in which Ehud Barak supposedly offered the Palestinians a Kinder egg. The summit this week will "only" seek to revive the old principle known as "Gaza and Jericho first." According to this principle, Israel will again be ready to put the Palestinians to the test: Israel will withdraw from Gaza and allow the Palestinians to again control Jericho. If the experiment succeeds, the Palestinians will receive a few additional cities and another few hundred prisoners and several other benefits, known in diplomatic jargon as "goodwill gestures." There is really nothing to worry about: The Oslo Accords are not about to be resurrected - nothing of the sort. It will be almost a technical meeting, which may produce a cease-fire that is temporary, fragile and dependent on many conditions. There will be no diplomatic negotiations and no long-term commitments.

It used to be said that a meeting like this was important because of the very fact that it was being held, as if this were some type of cosmic event. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can no longer allow itself to suffice with this type of meeting. The working assumption of the Sharm summit can no longer be that the sides convene only to write each other's test assignments again. The conflict has long ago passed the Pavlovian stage in which Israel waves a package of gestures and the Palestinians are only obliged to stop shooting. The working assumption of this summit should be that a strategic change has occurred in the conflict. On the Israeli side, there is a government that is ready to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate settlements, and it should state loudly and clearly that it is also prepared to reach a complete accord with the Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, there is an elected leadership that is prepared and able to assert control over its country, and it should declare that it is entirely focused on a diplomatic solution.

Israel is not withdrawing from Gaza to impress the United States, or to inscribe Sharon on some page of history. And the Palestinian Authority is not laying down its arms in order to please Israel. Each side is acting in pursuit of its own interests and the realization of these interests depends on their reciprocity. Thus, for the withdrawal from Gaza to be successful, and for Israel to be able to free itself from this scourge, it must be done with full transfer of authority to the Palestinians - because Gaza is an inseparable part of their country and not because Israel will release a few hundred prisoners to them. But the Palestinians must know what the sum total of the Palestinian state will be, and not just what the first payment will be on some unknown bill.

Indeed, the Sharm summit is not intended as a start toward demarcating new borders. Israel will not announce there that it will leave all of the territories, or part with Jerusalem. But this is a summit that should reestablish the foundation of reciprocity inherent in the old principle: Gaza and Jericho first. First, but not only.

The danger is that the same tricky pitfalls are concealed within this strategic change - the same pitfalls that characterized earlier incremental plans that failed, such as the Tenet and Mitchell documents and the road map. Such plans included conditions of implementation that allowed each side to interpret reality as it wished. Israel and the Palestinians do not need another such incremental plans, but rather a precise political definition of Sharon's declaration that Israel cannot continue to occupy the Palestinians and that there should be two states for the two peoples. Without any "if" or condition. In the absence of such definition, there will be no strategic, historic or ideological significance in Sharon's readiness to withdraw from Gaza - or in the flags waving at Sharm.