Keeping the Palestinians Out of Sight

Both states may exist side by side, in peace and security, in the spirit of Bush's eschatological vision, but behind high walls of seclusion and estrangement.

Buried between the lines of U.S. President George W. Bush's speech on the Middle East on Monday was a significant point regarding the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Bush called Jordan and Egypt "natural gateways for Palestinian exports" and urged them to be open to trade with their neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Bureau were pleased to hear this, noting that it was Ariel Sharon who first made this point in his Herzliya speech on the disengagement plan at the end of 2003.

A superficial reading of Bush's speech makes his statement about the economic opportunities that would open up for the Palestinians seem part of Shimon Peres' view of the region: open borders, movement and prosperity. But it has a much deeper meaning: Bush has effectively exonerated Israel from another chunk of its responsibility for the territories.

The economic model of the disengagement assumed that the Gaza Strip's economy would depend on Ashdod's port and the Karni crossing, and endeavored to increase the quantity of merchandise trucked from Gaza's fields to Israel's vegetable stalls and Europe's flower markets. Sharon was forced to accept the movement-and-access agreement, which ensured the expansion of activity at the Karni crossing and enabled trucks to transport goods.

The agreement was broken almost from the very first day. Closing the passageways was part of the pressure Israel exerted on the Palestinians, which was presented as punishment for the Qassam rocket fire and a means of isolating Hamas. The Americans insisted on upholding the agreement, until Hamas took over the Gaza Strip.

Now Bush has accepted Israel's position, that the Arabs must look after their kinfolk, and the trade in the territories must go through the Rafah crossing and Allenby Bridge. This is a message to Tony Blair not to delude himself with the fantasies of his predecessor, James Wolfensohn, about economic cooperation on both sides of the Green Line. Israel no longer needs to worry about Palestinian exports, after successfully driving away the workers from the territories.

If there's any consistency among the Israeli governments, it's the effort to keep the Palestinians out of sight. Since Yitzhak Rabin called to "get Gaza out of Tel Aviv" during his 1992 campaign, all the governments have strived to achieve this goal. They took various measures: a general closure of the territories, the Oslo agreement and setting up the Palestinian Authority, building bypass roads in the West Bank, preventing access from Gaza to the West Bank, fencing off the Gaza Strip, putting up the separation fence in the West Bank, erecting roadblocks, the disengagement and finally the new citizenship law.

The Palestinians, who persisted in terror acts, always provided the reason for the next action against them.

The cumulative effect of all these measures is that most Israelis see Palestinians only on television. Only the settlers who live beyond the fence, soldiers serving in the territories and the few who visit East Jerusalem come into contact with the neighboring nation. Even those who travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Road 443 and look at the houses and olive trees along the way could imagine they're in Tuscany or Greece, rather than occupied territory inhabited by a hostile population.

The Israeli media mostly ignores the events in the territories. More important, Israel has surrounded itself by a bubble that is connected to the developed world and cut off from the territories.

The economy no longer leans on the traditional industries, which in the past were based on Palestinian labor. Thus Israel can celebrate an economic boom a few kilometers away from a poverty-stricken, threatening third world.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, the price of the Israeli isolationist policy has been economic devastation, unemployment and extreme distress. We could argue over who's to blame and who started it, but that's not important. Looking ahead, Bush sees Israel as part of the Western economy and Palestine as part of the intra-Arab economy. Both states may exist side by side, in peace and security, in the spirit of Bush's eschatological vision, but behind high walls of seclusion and estrangement.