Upon the evacuation of the settlers from the Gaza Strip, a situation assessment is called for: Who won the last five years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which broke out following the collapse of the peace process at Camp David? Who seared whose consciousness? The simple answer is that the Palestinians won on points. Sewing shops in Gaza are currently flooded with orders for PLO and Hamas flags, as the two movements vie against each other for the credit for getting the hated Israelis out of Gaza. The Palestinians are preparing victory marches, while Israel is mourning an internal rift and the loss of a dream and fearing the dangers of "the day after."
A comparison between the two sides' positions at the start of the conflict and their current positions also gives a clear advantage to the Palestinians. They demanded an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories, a state with Jerusalem as its capital and a right of return for the refugees. Israel insisted on maintaining the status quo, without giving up an inch, until the Palestinians gave in and abandoned terrorism. But Israel blinked and decided to evacuate some of the territories without receiving anything from the Palestinians. Their diplomatic positions have not changed by so much as a comma, and despite the blows they have absorbed, they have maintained their terrorist capabilities and have not implemented reforms. Their change in leadership stemmed from Yasser Arafat's death, not from Israeli pressure.
The principal change in Israel's position was Ariel Sharon's abandonment of the demand to retain all the settlements and to continue to develop them until a permanent agreement is signed. That had been a cornerstone of Israeli policy since 1994, when Yitzhak Rabin rejected Shimon Peres's proposal to evacuate Netzarim as part of the "Gaza and Jericho First" agreement. Israel argued that the settlements were its own affair, and it was permitted to do as it wished with them. Sharon retreated from this position twice over: first when he agreed to a construction freeze under American pressure, and then with the disengagement.
In hindsight, it is clear that the stubborn insistence on leaving all the settlements - even the most isolated and extremist ones - intact was a terrible piece of stupidity. Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were killed for nothing in battles around Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Gush Katif. Huge sums were sunk into the dunes of these settlements to build unnecessary infrastructure and fortifications. The leaders who today declare that, "It's clear that Gaza would not have remained in our hands under a permanent agreement" need to ask themselves why they insisted on retaining a place that has no future. Was it only for fear of an internal conflict with the settlers and their political supporters?
The Palestinians succeeded in searing into Israelis' consciousness the futility of the settlement enterprise, a recognition of the limits of force and the need to take international legitimacy into account. To many Israelis, including the prime minister, it is clear that "Gaza first" is not the end, and that a large-scale evacuation of settlements in the West Bank is also in the offing.
But the Palestinians have also paid a heavy price, above and beyond the direct damages of the intifada. Israel was not defeated, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is correct in his assessment that the terror attacks had been stemmed long before the disengagement was implemented, and that Mahmoud Abbas abandoned his predecessor's policy of terrorism. The price the Palestinians paid for Arafat's "all or nothing" approach at Camp David was the abandonment of the diplomatic process in favor of a unilateral Israeli move that has won worldwide support. Israel determined the extent and timing of the withdrawal, while the Palestinians bewail Sharon's "plot" to concede Gaza in exchange for tightening Israel's control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
All diplomatic overtures between Israel and the Arabs have resulted from wars and reflected the balance of power at their end: the cease-fire agreement following the War of Independence, the peace with Egypt after the Yom Kippur War, the Oslo Accords following the first intifada.
The disengagement, which ended the second intifada, continues this pattern. Its limited extent, and Israel's continued control over the West Bank, indicate that the Palestinians' achievements were partial. But the real question, which thus far remains open, is whether the parties will succeed in moving on from here to a more stable arrangement without going through another war.
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