Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are working hard to try to persuade the citizens of Israel, including the unemployed and the single mothers, that the road back to economic security unavoidably includes a rough transition period. Without going into the shortcomings of the government's economic program, it is nevertheless possible to say that this is one of the rare cases in which the decision-makers have taken short-term risks for the sake of a shot at an improved quality of life in the long term. But the sense of responsibility, the wisdom and the courage suddenly disappear when it comes to life itself - to the physical security of those same citizens.
Ten weeks after the cabinet approved the road map and five weeks into the cease-fire, the choice facing the political echelon is between a major threat to personal security in the long term and a certain degree of security risk in the short term - between a fragile, temporary quiet that will last a few weeks and the chance of a permanent arrangement that will last many years.
The government has preferred the assessments that the Palestinians will extend the hudna (temporary truce) to the warnings that if the cease-fire is not fueled by tangible improvements in the Palestinians' daily lives and hopes for an end to the occupation, the fire will flare up again to previously unknown heights. Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian parliament, warned members of the "peace coalition" over the weekend that if there is no improvement in the civilian population's situation, the armed militias will gain control of the street.
As in the economic realm, the road to recovery in the security realm includes a transition period with painful side effects. A suicide bomber is liable to exploit the lifting of the closure on Palestinian cities. A released prisoner might engage in activities that could quickly return him to solitary confinement. A manual laborer might abuse his new entry permit into Israel. Nor can one dismiss the risk that an Israel Defense Forces withdrawal to the September 2000 lines will make it easier for the rejectionist organizations to regroup their forces.
During the transition period, which corresponds to the first stage of the road map, the government is not required to make fateful decisions regarding the future of the occupation. The discussions on permanent borders, the future of the veteran settlements, a division of Jerusalem and the right of return will take place only during the third and final stage.
All the government has to do now is remove all the hardships (some of them necessitated by reality) that it introduced into the territories during the three years of the intifada: to lift the closure, to make it easier for workers to enter Israel, to dismantle dozens of illegal settlement outposts and to withdraw the IDF from Area A (Palestinian-controlled territory). It is worth noting that the road map also requires Israel to allow the Palestinians to reopen institutions in East Jerusalem that have been shut down.
Palestinian society will not repudiate the elements waging the violent struggle against the Israeli occupation overnight. It will be weeks, perhaps months, until Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas gains the popular support he needs in order to forcibly disarm the militias. There are liable to be additional victims during this period, but at some point, the Gordian knot must be cut.
Israel has the power to influence the length of the transition period and even its price. But the Palestinians have also adopted the principle of "if they give, they'll get; if they don't give, they won't get," that Netanyahu coined when he was prime minister. The easier their lives become and the more hope they are given, the more security and economic well-being they will give to Israel. Free hudnas do not last under conditions of occupation.
The list of drugs covered by the national health insurance program and the quality of the roads directly affect the life expectancy of thousands of patients and tens of thousands of drivers. But even though the economic decrees have not been received with understanding by many sectors, and particularly its voters, the government decided to slash the health and transportation budgets cruelly. It did so because it believes that this is the only way to halt the economy's deterioration.
It is hard to believe that those same decision-makers do not know that in security matters as well, a relatively small crisis today is preferable to a major disaster tomorrow.
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