Putting Paid to Gaza

A proposal to fully withdrawal from Gaza is fraught with dangers, but it also offers opportunities to alleviate Israel's current predicament, and therefore should be explored.

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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently suggested that Israel end its role as an occupying power in Gaza. Is he onto something?

Supporters of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in 2005, argued that it would leave Israel in a much better position to defend itself: The pullout, they said, would win Israel international understanding for possible military responses to future provocations emanating from Gaza. They were wrong: Gaza turned violent, as predicted. Its fall into Hamas' hands put the Strip under the rule of Israel's most implacable foes. But the daily barrage of rockets on Israeli towns and Hamas' intransigent posture failed to win Israel any long-term sympathy. International responses to Operation Cast Lead 20 months ago, far from expressing understanding, culminated in the Goldstone report's denial of Israel's right to defend itself - which suggests that the country's efforts to make its case about Gaza will only become more difficult over time.

The blockade, which Israel imposed after the 2007 Hamas coup, is the only way of preventing the Islamic movement from improving its arsenal, much in the way that Hezbollah did in Lebanon. But it also gives Israel's enemies formidable ammunition for further delegitimizing the Jewish state. It may seem that long-term security considerations should outweigh short-term PR gains, but in Israel's case, PR is an important factor.

Undoubtedly, a deeply embedded hostility to Israel is partly to explain for the readiness to condemn it for defending itself. But Israel's Gaza predicament also derives from its government's difficult balancing act, between its attempt to be free of responsibility for Gaza and its need to contain Hamas. It's understandable that Israel has not pursued formal international recognition of the end of the occupation in the same way that it did after withdrawing from Lebanon in May 2000: Not only would this require it to end the naval blockade, but it would put Egypt in an untenable position.

Egypt is concerned that Hamas' influence will spill over into Sinai, something that would strengthen Hamas' sister organization in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. The blockade, though not ideal, has contained the Palestinian group's nefarious influence beyond the boundaries of the Strip, while enabling Israel to prevent dangerous military ordnance from entering it. And the price of recognition might be that Israel's ability to prevent arms smuggling into the Strip would be severely curtailed.

Regardless, recent events put further strain on Israel's current policies. Before the flotilla incident, Israel claimed that it was doing its utmost to ensure that Gaza's civilian population was not under duress - and yet, days after the incident, it dramatically expanded the list of products allowed into the Strip. Clearly, Israel's concessions were designed to quell mounting criticism from friendly countries, but they also played into the hands of those who seek to portray the blockade as needlessly cruel and ineffectual.

Given the above, should Israel explore Lieberman's idea? Lieberman suggested severing all Israel's ties to the Strip and opening it to the world, dependent on unspecified arrangements that would meet Israel's security needs. Israel would have to ask the international community to set clear parameters for establishing the end of its status as occupying power. Having met them, Israel would no longer have any obligations vis-a-vis Gaza and its civilian population. But giving Gaza the full sovereign status that the current legal limbo denies it would require allowing Hamas to reopen the port and airport - which it would no doubt seek to exploit for weapons' delivery rather than for economic improvement.

There are no good precedents for Israel to rely on international good will alone - as the post-2006 buildup in Lebanon once again proved. Only if Israel can continue to rely on intelligence and interdiction to prevent dangerous deliveries from reaching the Strip's shores would this be a better option than the status quo. It is desirable to continue to exert pressure on Egypt and other friendly countries - whose tacit understanding for Israel's predicament was no match for their public condemnation when Israel had to act - in order to ensure that they will take real responsibility for Gaza.

Not only would a radical change of direction stir friendly countries out of their passivity, but, most important, it would put Hamas - and the Palestinian camp as a whole - in an uncomfortable predicament. Hamas has been able to gain from the current situation: It rules Gaza as a sovereign power, but can at the same time don the victim's mantle by crying occupation, thus skirting the hard questions that an end to occupation would require it to confront. With an internationally recognized, full Israeli withdrawal, Hamas could no longer hide behind this pretext. It would have to decide: Is Gaza an Islamic state? Does it seek recognition, and should it therefore apply to the UN and other international organizations for membership? And if so, in what capacity - as Palestine-in-the-making or as an entity that is distinct from the West Bank?

Either way, this would be a direct challenge to the PA and its claim to be the sole representative of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. And it would force new dynamics on intra-Palestinian politics that neither Hamas nor Fatah may wish to contemplate.

A full withdrawal is fraught with dangers. But it also offers opportunities to alleviate Israel's current predicament. Lieberman's proposal has already triggered panicked responses from Egypt, the EU, Hamas and Fatah - preliminary evidence that it is worth exploring.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author of the forthcoming "Iran: The Looming Crisis" (Profile Books ).

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