In their dreams, Israelis see Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) signing a peace agreement between the states of Israel and Palestine next year, shaking hands warmly and striding hand in hand toward the future. According to the latest public opinion poll conducted by Hebrew University's Truman Institute, 67 percent of Israeli Jews and 63 percent of Israeli Arabs support mutual recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people. A parallel poll by the Palestinian research institute headed by Dr. Khalil Shikaki found a similar rate of support (63 precent) among Palestinians in the territories and East Jerusalem.
But when they wake up to the political and security reality, most Israelis predict that the conflict with the Palestinians will continue next year as well. According to the two polls, which were conducted as part of the same research project, only 5 percent of Israelis (and 25 percent of Palestinians) expect negotiations to resume and terror attacks to stop, next year. Only 37 percent (30 percent of Palestinians) believe that the other side's leadership is ripe for a comprehensive solution.
A majority of both Israelis (59 percent) and Palestinians (53 percent) believe that if an agreement is reached, Sharon has the power to get the Israeli public to approve it. In contrast, while half of all Palestinians believe that Abbas is strong enough to persuade his public to support the necessary compromises, no more than 18 percent of Israelis believe that the Palestinian public would stand behind him.
What this means is that the problem is not the nature of the solution. That is known: It will lie more or less between the Clinton outline and the Bush vision. The principle obstacle to an agreement, even after the death of Yasser "there is no partner" Arafat, continues to be the loss of trust by Israel's citizens in their Palestinian neighbors.
Even though the disengagement from Gaza was a unilateral move, the new reality that emerges there in the coming year will have a substantial impact on the level of trust between the sides. A central government that succeeds in imposing law and order, reviving the economy and implementing reforms could persuade the Israeli public that there is someone to talk with. In contrast, if the Palestinian Authority displays weakness in the face of armed gangs and religious fanatics and the occupation is replaced by anarchy, residents of Kfar Sava will lose their desire to wake up one morning to a Palestinian state on the other side of the road.
After the tempest of evacuating thousands of settlers from their homes and the storm that the disengagement aroused in the ruling party, there are no expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough. The Palestinians are busy preparing for the parliamentary elections that will take place in January 2006. In the Likud, all eyes are focused on the leadership primary that will take place in April, which is expected to determine not only who will lead the ruling party, but also its diplomatic path. And the U.S. congressional elections in November 2006 are expected to greatly reduce the Bush administration's interest in dramatic moves in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
But the political agenda must not be allowed to create a diplomatic vacuum. Such a vacuum invites evil spirits. The Hebrew year 5766, the first without an Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip, provides an unprecedented opportunity for building confidence. During this year, not only must the Palestinians behave honorably and fulfill all of the commitments that they made in the framework of the road map - primarily in the realm of security - but Israel must also act honorably and win the trust of its neighbors by doing its part, mainly with regard to land theft and human rights violations in the West Bank. Only thus can the suspicion that "Gaza first" means "Gaza last" be laid to rest.
The international community - first and foremost the United States and other members of the Quartet, who assumed responsibility for implementing the road map - will also have to use the year following the disengagement for active enforcement and generous economic aid.
The year 5766 evidently does not herald dreams come true. But it can nevertheless be the year of the righteous.
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