A New New Middle East

The man who devised the strategy of disengagement from the Palestinians is now devoted to a project that is wholly caught up in the lives of the Palestinians.

The strategic community in Israel is not especially optimistic right now. Former prime minister Ehud Barak is forecasting a third intifada; former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon sees a high probability of a second war of terror; the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuval Steinitz, is predicting apocalyptic conflicts with Iran and Egypt. They aren't alone: Quite a few ranking defense and diplomatic establishment insiders - and outsiders - are projecting the sense that lying in wait beyond the immediate horizon of the disengagement is the lack of any horizon. There is no real Israeli- Palestinian agreement and no real Israeli-American coordination. There is no reasonable response to the Palestinian question, and no serious response to the Iranian threat. Therefore, many Israeli strategists assume that when the clouds of struggle clear over the ruins of Gush Katif, Israel will not find itself at the threshold of a glorious future. On the contrary, Israel will find itself in the center of a gloomy and depressing circle of threats.

The exception to all this is reserve brigadier general Eival Giladi. Giladi's name is hardly on the lips of the public at large, and few people outside the army are familiar with his past as a senior artillery officer, in the general staff's planning division and in the Prime Minister's Office. Yet in the past three years, Giladi has carried much weight in shaping Israel's future. As head of the coordination and strategy team in the Prime Minister's Office, he is to a great extent the father of the separation fence. The energetic kibbutznik from Kabri is also one of the architects of the disengagement plan. Giladi is the thinking man in the Sharon administration, the behind-the-scenes advisor to the advisor and ultimate mystery emissary, Dov Weissglas. Giladi is the intellectual of the bureau, the court philosopher of Sycamore Ranch, a brilliant and hyperactive peacenik who is captivated by the charms of Ariel Sharon, and who adroitly serves him. He comes and goes at the White House, he comes and goes at 10 Downing Street, he whispers to the enlightened world the word of Sharon, and explains to Sharon the word of the enlightened world.

At heart, Giladi is an optimistic person. Mercurial, creative and charming. He relentlessly tries to outsmart the harsh reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Formulating plans, coining new concepts, making connections. He's got a hand in all, and all hands are in him. A Scarlet Pimpernel of sorts. A Scarlet Pimpernel for Sharon, for disengagement, for hopes for peace.

Last night, in one of the upper floors of the Azrieli towers, Giladi surprised yet again. He revealed another dimension to his indefatigable creativity: the Portland Trust. A foundation that aims to revive the Palestinian economy in order to strengthen Israeli-Palestinian stability in the post-disengagement era.

Standing behind the Portland Trust is the new owner of Bezeq, Sir Ronald Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew who acquired his billions in the City of London and enjoys intimate access to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Along with two partners - Sir Harry Solomon and Sir Martin Gilbert - Cohen decided to try to save the region through a project that somewhat recalls Shimon Peres' New Middle East project. However, since Cohen and his colleagues are sober and pragmatic Englishmen, their development and progress program is not detached from reality, as was Peres'. It supposes that the Palestinian economy will not be integrated into the Israeli economy, and it deals with a clear irony: The man who built the separation fence for Sharon is building Palestine beyond that fence for Ronald Cohen. The man who devised the strategy of disengagement from the Palestinians is now devoted to a project that is wholly caught up in the lives of the Palestinians.

Giladi believes there is no contradiction between these two agendas. He is therefore raising loan guarantees of some $500 million, which will release the Palestinians from their credit stranglehold. He is a feverish proponent of pushing ahead a colossal international project that would build approximately 150,000 housing units in the Gaza Strip in the near future. Giladi believes that with the help of credit and through a construction surge, the Palestine after disengagement could resemble the Israel of the 1950s: growing, developing and undergoing an accelerated process of modernization. Giladi believes that with a sated, modern Palestine such as this, we could live as good neighbors. Not in idyllic peace, but as good neighbors. That is Portland's vision. That is Giladi's updated version of the old dream of a New Middle East.