A Once-in-a-lifetime Opportunity

The simplest thing to do, a step the success of which will bring about a substantial change in the situation, is a cooperative and coordinated implementation of Israel's exit from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria.

In July, 1982, at an Israel Defense Forces outpost at the port of Beirut, I saw, through field glasses, the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat board the Greek ferryboat and leave Beirut, after causing widespread destruction there. A week ago, I saw him board the Jordanian helicopter when he left Israel, which he left bleeding after four years of intifada and 4,000 casualties. This time, it was an exit that includes an opportunity for change.

The opportunity that has been created with Arafat's death cries out for swift, courageous and intelligent exploitation. The Palestinian leadership that is being formed is in need of concrete achievements and is ready for deeds that were impossible during Arafat's era. In order to end the war and to change the atmosphere, there is need for a practical plan of action with a good chance of success.

The simplest thing to do, a step the success of which will bring about a substantial change in the situation, is a cooperative and coordinated implementation of Israel's exit from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. In other words - handing over the Gaza Strip to a responsible and functioning Palestinian government.

There are six reasons why this step has a chance:

The disengagement plan has widespread support among the Israeli public; from the Palestinian point of view, the plan is a kind of initial precedent for a full Israeli withdrawal from an area that is filled with settlements, and there is no opposition to it among the Palestinians; the international community will provide political and economic support for a plan for evacuating Gaza that is not declared to be the last withdrawal; the success of the plan will serve the Palestinian government as proof of its ability to govern effectively in a territory handed over to its control; a coordinated Israeli disengagement from Gaza has a good chance of stopping the terror from Gaza; such a coordinated implementation is likely (even according to the data of the World Bank) to lead to a significant improvement in the standard of living in Gaza, which has deteriorated drastically.

I can attest from personal knowledge that there is a willingness for such a step among the Palestinian leadership. In March-April 2003, I formulated, together with the representatives of the Palestinian prime minister at the time, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), and of then minister Mohammed Dahlan an agreement that was called the "Gaza Pilot." Its main feature was a gradual withdrawal by Israel from Gaza within a year, conditional on the elimination of terror and accompanied by economic development of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government did not like the idea; Abu Mazen fell, under the familiar circumstances; and in December 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan for a unilateral withdrawal.

As reported by Haaretz correspondent Aluf Benn, a group of leading Israelis and Palestinians recently formulated an operational plan that involves turning the unilateral disengagement into a plan coordinated with the Palestinians, and supported by the international community and by Arab countries that are willing. This plan does not touch the sensitive issues of a final status agreement. It spells out mutual arrangements, both economic and security-related, that benefit both parties - a Palestinian operation to end terror, accompanied by an end to the belligerent operations of the IDF; at the same time, gradual and significant lifting of restrictions on Palestinian movement and commerce; development of infrastructure, agriculture and industry in the Gaza Strip by a combination of foreign investors and the Palestinian business sector; using the areas of the evacuated settlements to establish building initiatives for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip; development of industrial zones on the border, like the Karni industrial zone; a monitored increase in employment of Palestinians in Israel, until enough jobs are created in Gaza. All these are some of the elements of the plan whose architects include members of the Palestinian administration as well.

Neither this plan nor any other is sacred. The important thing is that the two governments immediately engage in practical discussions on how to carry out the security and economic aspects of the disengagement. Success in Gaza will bring an end to the war and will serve as the corridor for returning to the road map peace plan. We must not miss this historic opportunity; we must restore hope.