Condoleezza Rice's lightning visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem seems to have produced immediate results: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas are due to meet today to ratify the understandings they reached four months ago at Sharm el-Sheikh and to improve bilateral coordination for the upcoming evacuation of settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank. Rice has left, but in the place of a high-level American presence, there is a mechanism for mediating between the parties.
This mechanism has two aspects - security and economic. The security aspect is presided over by General William Ward, whose first assignment was to streamline the Palestinian security services. The economic aspect is presided over by James Wolfensohn, an envoy of the Quartet who has been asked to obtain third-party and Israeli aid for jump-starting Gaza's economy after the evacuation in order to prove to the Palestinians that a coordinated Israeli withdrawal will bring them benefits.
These are positive and important steps, to which can be added - despite its surprising nature - the Israeli-Palestinian agreement over demolishing the settlers' houses. The agreement is better than the destruction. It is the Palestinians' right to do whatever they please in their sovereign territory, and there is logic to leveling the homes; but the sight of the destruction will not help the process of reconciliation between the peoples. There is even a sneaking suspicion that the Sharon government wants this, or at least is accepting it, in order to make it more difficult to implement the next withdrawal, from the West Bank - a withdrawal that, according to Rice, will certainly come.
The American administration is focusing its efforts on organizing the first evacuation. For this purpose, it has set two goals - security for the Israelis and hope for the Palestinians. Security for the Israelis means quiet before and during the evacuation so that public support for Sharon does not collapse and out of concern that an attack on the settlers or the forces evacuating them could delay the pullout. Hope for the Palestinians means assuring them, on the national level, that this will not be the last withdrawal, and on the personal level, that their lives will improve.
The fact that Sharon and Abbas have a mutual interest in the success of these efforts bodes well. But on both sides, the domestic situation is more complicated. The escalation in fatal attacks this week - in Rafah and the northern West Bank, and the attempt to attack a hospital that was foiled at the Erez Checkpoint - are liable to shatter Israel's restraint. And the situation will get even worse if it becomes clear to the Israeli public that Abbas is not managing to impose his authority on the terrorist organizations. If he does not do this now, who can guarantee that he will manage it after the withdrawal, when suicide attacks and high-trajectory weapons are liable to be launched from Gaza and the northern West Bank in order to spur the next withdrawal, from the rest of the West Bank?
The Israeli government also has a duty - to restrain the settlers and withdrawal opponents in their attacks on Palestinians. But the principal and most immediate burden falls on Abbas. The grave message that Sharon will give him at their meeting today will accurately reflect the growing concerns of the Israeli public: If he does not consolidate his rule at home, the fragile structure of the evacuation will be destroyed.
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