The end of Sharon's path
It is hard to decide which is worse - that the gov't failed to take into account the possibility that disengagement without an agreement with the Palestinians would increase the threat against the communities in the southwestern Negev, or that they left the Gaza Strip knowing full well that it would fall like a ripe fruit into the hands of Hamas.
Tzipi Livni complained to foreign diplomats last week that Israel left the Gaza Strip and dismantled all the settlements in Gush Katif, but that the Palestinians are reciprocating with salvos of Qassams. Really, that is not the proper way to behave. What, Livni and the apple of her eye, Ariel Sharon, were unaware that Hamas terrorists do not behave nicely? They thought Khaled Meshal and Mahmoud a-Zahar would send them flowers? It is hard to decide which is worse - that they failed to take into account the possibility that disengagement without an agreement with the Palestinians would increase the threat against the communities in the southwestern Negev, similar to what happened after Israel withdrew from Lebanon without an agreement with Syria; or that they left the Gaza Strip knowing full well that it would fall like a ripe fruit into the hands of Hamas.
The foreign minister provided the answer herself not long ago. In an interview on U.S. television, she admitted that it would have been better to leave Gaza as part of an agreement rather than to "toss the key into the street." The "street" is Hamas, of course, whose leading slogan is "resistance defeated the agreements." Ehud Olmert's best course of action since entering Sharon's shoes was violating his own great election promise to "follow in Sharon's path." There is no sign of convergence, and no vestige of unilateralism. The "no partner" mantra has given way to courting "moderate Arab leaders" and to longings for the "peace process."
Withstanding the pressure to reconquer the Gaza Strip also shows that Olmert is not following Sharon's path with eyes closed. So far, he has refrained from ordering a Gaza replay of Operation Defensive Shield, which brought the Israel Defense Forces back into the West Bank. And perhaps he learned the lesson of the Second Lebanon War - that a massive attack against Arab civilians unifies the Muslim world against the Israeli enemy and its "partners" in the pragmatic Arab camp.
Like always, this serves the radical stream in Hamas, which dislikes the partnership between Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, seeks to undermine the Dayton plan to strengthen Fatah, and objects to the Arab peace initiative. The way to rehabilitate what Sharon left of the partner is, therefore, precise and cautious use of power against Hamas, retrieving the key from the street and delivering it to the right address. This could be done by responding affirmatively to Abbas' request to extend the calm (tahadiyeh) to the West Bank and by ordering the IDF to attack only "ticking bombs," with discrete cooperation with the Palestinian Authority's security apparatuses. As far as we know, there are no tunnels under the Jordan River that could be used to smuggle weapons into the West Bank during a cease-fire. And why shouldn't the government apply the Dayton program to ease conditions throughout all the territories, showing the residents that only the moderate camp can restore their hopes?
Granting the Palestinian partner these small and important measures is essential, but this will maintain the status quo temporarily at best. To embark on a new path, Israel must take a big step forward, along the route charted by the Arab League's peace initiative. Opening a channel to Damascus, whether secret or explicit, via which Israel would assure Syria that an accord on the Golan would not lag behind an agreement on the Palestinian territories, would not just calm the northern front; Khaled Meshal's host could also exert more long-term influence on the southern front than a few Israeli air attacks on Gaza weapons laboratories would.
Hamas' violent clashes with Fatah in the streets of Gaza are nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the great confrontation the group anticipates in June and July. The attempt to blend a religious movement (whose ideology does not allow it to recognize a Jewish state) and a secular national movement (which has internalized the limits of its power) did not succeed. Sooner or later, whether through gun slits or the slits of ballot boxes, the Palestinians will receive another opportunity to choose which path they prefer. The Israelis will, too.