Wanted: Minister for Re-engagement

This month marks the one-year anniversary of two events that, not by coincidence, followed each other in quick succession: the launching of the Geneva Initiative and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's speech at the Herzliya Conference, in which he outlined his disengagement plan. At the time, Sharon responded deftly to the challenge posed by the swell of domestic and international support for the Geneva Initiative.

The same cannot be said for the peace camp, which has spent much of 2004 behaving like a deer caught in the headlights. The dilemma is well-rehearsed: In these "historic" times is it not petty and mean-spirited to challenge the politically fragile Sharon with such trivialities as the construction of 1,000 housing units in the West Bank, when a similar number are due for evacuation in Gaza? Or to take him to task over erecting a separation barrier in the wrong place (far from the Green Line, in some parts)? Or to press him to return to negotiations with the Palestinian leadership? To put it bluntly: "Silence, Arik is working."

There are, however, two battles that need to be waged. The first is the struggle for any pullback, for any chance for a two-state solution. This is a battle the settler leadership must not be allowed to win. The second battle, in which alliances are likely to shift, is what happens the morning after a Gaza withdrawal. This is when supporters of a viable two-state solution, which requires an end to the occupation, will be pitted against Sharon's Gaza-for-the-West Bank formula, which was so eloquently outlined by his senior aide Dov Weissglas, who explained in an interview to Haaretz that the aim of disengagement was to place the peace process in "formaldehyde."

Why ask difficult questions now, just when it all looks so simple, so consensual? Because the manner in which the Gaza withdrawal is carried out will impact deeply on the "morning after." And because there is a risk involved in selling a dangerous new set of illusions to that much-abused creature, the Israeli public, which will then wake up to an ugly new reality when it discovers that a Gaza pullout is not a panacea.

Let's not be deterministic. A Gaza withdrawal may be a positive precedent, proving it is possible to uproot settlements. It may also boost security, improve the atmosphere and revive a political process.

But a unilateral and partial withdrawal may also be so domestically traumatic as to indefinitely postpone any future moves (as many, including some of the plan's architects, it seems, are working to ensure), send a signal to the Palestinian street that violence delivers where negotiations failed, and create a convenient cover for parallel West Bank actions that further undermine the viability of the two-state solution.

A Gaza withdrawal does not lead automatically either to the entrenchment or to the cessation of the conflict - both are possible. The danger, however, is that Gaza will be the end of the process, not a way station on the road to settling the conflict. A long-distance swimmer can pause to take a breath, but he cannot tread water indefinitely.

Hence the importance of defining the content of any prospective Likud-Labor partnership. Labor negotiators can expect to receive little on socioeconomic and budgetary matters, and even less on issues of religion and state. But surely their ambitions should not be so modest as to give uncritical backing to the cabinet's revised version of the disengagement plan, born of an internal Likud compromise. The position of disengagement minister being touted for Labor leader Peres offends the ear. More appropriate would be the position of minister for re-engagement. For it is only a return to a negotiated process with a political horizon that extends beyond Gaza, that holds out the chance of unlocking the conflict. This platform should also guide the debate under the scenario of early elections.

A rare confluence of events has created an opportunity that might not be repeated: a Palestinian leadership committed to a nonviolent, two-state resolution of the conflict; an Arab world, spearheaded by Egypt, that is keen to see the political process renewed and ready for normalization as envisaged in the Saudi initiative; conciliatory voices from Damascus; and a Gulf region - flush with unexpected liquidity from the oil-price rise - that could substantially assist Palestinian rehabilitation. Finally, there is a U.S. administration beginning to mull the notion that a model Arab democracy may be easier to achieve in Palestine (especially post-occupation) than in Iraq.

Making 2005 "The Year of Gaza-only" is a recipe for squandering this opportunity. Making it the point of departure for a permanent status peace agreement, with the Geneva Initiative - or something similar - as a model, would qualitatively enhance Israel's strategic position, long-term security and viability.

It is not too early to begin this debate. For almost a year the opposition has largely failed to create a policy space to the left of Sharon. Now it is time to tell the truth about the morning after: It is good to leave Gaza behind us, but a pullout is only a partial measure, not one that will end the conflict. To paraphrase Bill Clinton's old election slogan: "It's the West Bank, stupid."

If Labor is to back Sharon in round one against the settler leadership from inside the government, rather than from the opposition benches, this does not free it of explaining to the public what needs to happen in round two. Anyone for minister of re-engagement?

Daniel Levy served as policy adviser to Yossi Beilin, was a member of the Israeli team to the Oslo B and Taba negotiations, and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.