Zvi Bar'el / Easing Gazans' Plight Is Political Necessity for Israel

If there is a place where Benjamin Netanyahu's economic peace can begin, it's Gaza.

It appears as if Israel is standing on an American volcano getting ready to erupt. White smoke is billowing from the Foreign Ministry and the political seismographs are going crazy. And if a fateful decision is not made, hot lava will engulf the country in the form of U.S.-Iranian dialogue, U.S. officials visiting Syria for the second time, a new diplomatic plan prepared secretly, frequent visits by Arab leaders to the White House, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty waved in front of Israel, and Britain ready to talk with Hezbollah. And the United States will reevaluate Hamas' status after Jordan's King Abdullah proposed to Barack Obama the establishment of a federation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli government is facing all this with its still-empty sandbags, instead of an initiative, an attempt to stave off the offensive.

Of course, there is a different way. It will not bring immediate peace, but it may ease the pressure and prepare the ground for the next stage. In Gaza, for example, there has been a de facto cease-fire for weeks between Israel and Hamas. True, once in a while a rocket is launched or a mortar shell is fired, but these exceptions prove the rule, just as the occasional attacks in Jerusalem do not undermine the calm between Israel and the West Bank. Why, then, does Israel continue to strangle the Gaza Strip? Does it hope to sign a formal cease-fire agreement with Hamas? Does it hope to win the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit or gain Hamas' recognition of the Jewish state?

A million and a half people are under a prolonged siege and see no way out of this collective punishment. Even the distorted logic that led to its imposition no longer exists.

If there is a place where Benjamin Netanyahu's economic peace can begin, it's Gaza. Billions of dollars are waiting in banks in Arab countries to help reconstruct and develop Gaza. True, Hamas will benefit from this bonanza. But what happens now? Nothing - but isn't Hamas still the dominant player in the Gaza Strip, the one that controls the flame's intensity, dictates the Israel Defense Forces' responses and delays the diplomatic process? If the economic sanctions imposed on Gaza are meant to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, where is his political contribution?

But worse than all this is the civilians' condition in the Strip, which threatens Egypt and the PA. It troubles the Quartet, which considers itself responsible for protecting the Palestinians' rights. Without an Israeli willingness to progress, even slowly, toward a political solution, the European Union, Russia and even the United States will find it hard to initiate anything in Gaza. And what will Israel's response be? That as long as Hamas does not recognize Israel or return Gilad Shalit, Gaza's residents will continue to rot in their prison? How long does the government believe it can delay foreign intervention in the Gaza Strip?

Opening the crossings to Gaza is not a goodwill gesture, it's a humanitarian and political necessity. Even if the humanitarian side does not particularly concern the government, political logic dictates that it dismantles any traps that may turn the Strip into a threat Europe and the United States can use to slam Israel.

Another example is the northern border. Israel is willing to relinquish the northern part of the village of Ghajar to fulfill Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. But what about Shaba Farms? There are no settlements or security considerations there. Withdrawing from the area, even without an agreement with Syria, may really help the current Lebanese government in the coming elections and put genuine pressure on Hezbollah, which justifies its arming on the need to liberate Lebanese lands and defend the country. Is it necessary to wait for Hezbollah to complete its takeover of Lebanon and come through on its ambition to free Shaba?

Gaza and Shaba Farms are not political assets, they're bad ammunition that Israel uses dangerously and may blow up in its face. When the grandiose diplomatic plans stall and Washington understands that peace cannot be achieved quickly, Gaza and Shaba will become political traps. It's best to be freed from them now.