Israel Must Make Gaza a Priority in Any Diplomatic Efforts With Palestinians

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Palestinian protesters near border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip during clashes with Israeli security forces on October 13, 2015.
Palestinian protesters near border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip during clashes with Israeli security forces on October 13, 2015.Credit: Reuters

In every crisis there is opportunity, as the saying goes, and that is particularly relevant since Summer 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Hamas’ declared goal – both with the failed reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority on the eve of the operation, and during the operation itself – was to break the economic stranglehold on the Gaza Strip. The organization did not achieve its goal at the time, and this remains its goal.

That is the essence of the opportunity. It depends both on Hamas’ desire to break the blockade around Gaza and Israel’s desire to achieve a long-term cease-fire and ultimate demilitarization of the Strip.

About a year and a half ago, immediately after Operation Protective Edge, I published a diplomatic plan in that spirit, titled “Gaza, the opportunity.” Beyond the Israeli interest in the Strip’s demilitarization and the interest of Gaza residents in opening it up to the world, there is also a combination of international and regional interests – on the part of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority – to achieve that goal.

Because it is a long process, with at least four stages (international recognition of the move, planning, implementation and maintenance) that would last almost five years, there is no need to agree on all its conditions already at the start. For example, there is no need to deal now with all the details of security arrangements in the seaport and the airport to be opened only in about four years from now. At the present stage it’s enough if the parties reach an agreement that by the time the ports are ready to begin operation, security arrangements will be completed, and if there is no agreement, their operation will be postponed.

At the same time I had difficulty deciding between two names for my diplomatic proposal – “Gaza, the Opportunity” or “Gaza First,” like the title of Ari Shavit’s op-ed earlier this month. As opposed to prevailing opinion, which I also shared until Operation Defensive Shield, that it may be possible to achieve some agreement or other with the Palestinians over Judea and Samaria even without the Gaza Strip, after the war in the summer of 2014 I changed my mind. Any diplomatic arrangement that doesn’t include the Gaza Strip is doomed to failure. The repeated, and expanding, waves of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Strip will make it impossible over the long term to establish any agreement with the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.

Therefore, in terms of diplomacy the right thing to do is exactly the opposite: Gaza first. We have to take the bull by the horns and not be deterred by the hot potato called the Gaza Strip. We have to try to reach an agreement there, of all places, and not leave the Strip behind. The success of such a move, even if partial, is likely to convince Israeli citizens, as well as the Palestinians, that it is possible to reach broader agreements in Judea and Samaria.

Acknowledgement of the reasonableness, justification and necessity for a diplomatic step in the Gaza Strip, whose goal in the long run is demilitarization in return for a seaport and an airport, is also picking up speed in the government itself. A year and a half ago Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) published his plan for constructing an artificial island opposite the shore of the Strip, where the seaport and airport would be built. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) recently spoke in favor of building a seaport in the Strip, apparently when he realized that it’s the only way to deal with Hamas and the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

Slowly but surely the realization is filtering down that a genuine diplomatic process between us and the Palestinian cannot start and end with an overall peace agreement, but that we need a separation process that will last for several years. A few months ago I published an updated diplomatic plan, “The Separation,” that includes the Gaza Strip, which I was happy to see adopted by the Labor Party. Americans involved in Middle Eastern affairs to whom I presented the plan in Washington responded with openness and understanding that such a step is what, in the final analysis, will lead negotiations toward a two-state solution.

After I have been presenting this way of thinking for three years, it seems that many people in Israel and now in the United States, too, have been persuaded that the paradigm of negotiations between the two sides that will end the conflict has become bankrupt, and that we have to think differently. Unfortunately, after my intensive talks in Washington, it seems that when it comes to “Gaza first” or “Gaza, the opportunity,” people still don’t get it. Neither the Americans nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter continues, with open eyes, to lead all of us from one military operation to the next, with imaginary lulls between them, and we the people are paying the price in blood. It is hard to be forgiving in the face of such cowardice, which is leading us to the edge of the abyss.

The writer is a Zionist Union MK.

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