After Gaza, More Gaza

Stopping at Gaza will not deliver a secure and prosperous Israel. The Palestinian partner will be weakened and it will be Israeli policy that hands power to Hamas.

It sometimes seems that in the 53 days remaining before the disengagement, every single settler slated for evacuation will be interviewed in one Israeli media outlet or another. The media obsession with the minutiae of the human interest story is perhaps understandable. But the deafening silence of any serious debate on what happens next borders on the irresponsible.

As the Israeli public stumbles around in a haze of orange, the outline of Sharon's tactics for what comes after Gaza may be emerging, almost unnoticed. A new tactic has entered the mix, alongside the pre-road map conditionalities for the Palestinians (disarm, dismantle, be like Finns), or early elections (on a platform of "Don't ask questions - trust me!").

Let's call this tactic "after Gaza, more Gaza." It looks like this: The Gaza and northern West Bank disengagement is complicated, very complicated. It throws up a host of issues that are only now being addressed and coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, despite the 18 months of lead time. These are weighty and important issues: ensuring the free flow of goods between Gaza and external markets, Gaza and the West Bank, and Gaza and Israel; arrangements for the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt, the Philadelphi route, as well as the territorial link between Gaza and the West Bank; defining the legal status of post-withdrawal Gaza; access of Gazan laborers to Israel - and the list goes on.

Having started (intentionally?) dealing with these issues so late, they will never be resolved in the 53 remaining days. A committee is needed, and not just one committee but a steering committee with many sub-committees. Its work can take weeks, months, perhaps even years. You want a peace process after Gaza, you got it. Israelis and Palestinians will meet, in hotels, in European capitals, over hummus, over croissants. "After Gaza, more Gaza."

The tactic is politically convenient. It can provide the glue for maintaining the governing coalition and avoid elections; it muzzles any prospective Israeli opposition and public debate on what comes next; it defers more concerted international engagement, and may even catch the Palestinian leadership off balance. A perfect parking space for the peace process. The tactic gives Sharon his desired time-out from any serious political process or the need to tackle the difficult questions for which he either has no answers or risks being exposed as the unreasonable naysayer. Likud can paper over its internal cracks. Labor can again fall into the trap of playing second fiddle. Who cannot envisage Shimon Peres reveling in chairing the "Gaza Peace Consolidation Steering Committee"? Shinui will occasionally murmur something about "let us back into government," while carving out its own sectoral niche budgets. The far right will gather its forces again, with perhaps Meretz-Yahad providing the only policy challenge.

The benefits for Sharon are almost intoxicating - no road map, no disengagement II, no permanent status negotiations, and all with a plausible excuse for Bush, Blair, Condi, and the Israeli public. In fact, "after Gaza, more Gaza" has only one drawback - it is bad policy for Israel.

Gaza constitutes a mere 6.14 percent of the Palestinian territories under Israeli control. Stopping at Gaza will not deliver a secure and prosperous Israel. The Palestinian partner will be weakened and it will be Israeli policy that hands power to Hamas. The internal threat to Israel's well-being represented by the settlements project - only now being partially confronted - will reassert its strength on the West Bank, to the huge detriment of mainstream Israel's future. This kind of delay tactic is a recipe for a return to violence and more socioeconomic woes. This time, the missed opportunity will be of Israel's choosing.

Any such Sharon tactic of camouflaged time-out can be challenged by at least three actors - the moderate realist camp in Israel inside and outside the Knesset, the U.S.-led Quartet, and the Palestinian leadership. All three would do well to define disengagement narrowly, and say that once the settlers and military are relocated, the disengagement is over. All outstanding issues would then be part of a broader process of a re-energized road map toward a permanent status agreement. The issues raised - border crossings, West Bank-Gaza links, economic arrangements and so on - are all important, but their rightful place is in a broader negotiated process whose end goal is a viable two state solution along the lines of the Geneva Initiative model.

So, the way to avoid dealing with Gaza in perpetuity? The Palestinian leadership should set out its position on final status, while assuming effective control of the vacated areas and credibly tackling security threats. The Quartet should promote a revised road map taking into account new developments and lapsed time-lines, while outlining its parameters for the endgame. Most important: Israeli moderates and realists should create a broad-based coalition, from Labor and Meretz-Yahad to pragmatists from Shinui, Likud, the Russian-speaking, Israeli-Arab and religious constituencies with one clear demand - negotiate an end to this conflict now.

Daniel Levy was an advisor in the Prime Minister's Office, a member of the official Israel negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.