U.S. Could Play Positive Gaza Role

Ariel Sharon stunned Israeli politics early this month by announcing that he had ordered official plans for relocating 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip and at least three more in the West Bank. He has ignited a political firestorm in Israel, as many on the Israeli right are mobilizing against him, while others charge that he is merely diverting attention from a snowballing corruption scandal.

Regardless of his true intentions, Sharon, by marking most of the Gaza Strip for evacuation, has almost completely given up on meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the near future. There is a small chance that negotiations may still occur, precluding Sharon’s withdrawal from occurring in a vacuum. However, if Israel chooses to navigate the risky path of unilateralism, America’s goal should be to encourage a safe and secure outcome through hands-on engagement.

Sharon’s remarks have set an entirely new process in motion. The widespread perception throughout Israel is that there is no longer anyone serious to talk to among the Palestinians, and that Arafat is fomenting chaos so that the international community will turn to him in desperation.

But the unilateral road is fraught with risk and uncertainty, mainly because the reactions of the other side are unpredictable. The worst-case scenario is that Gaza follows the South Lebanon precedent of 2000, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s withdrawal was interpreted as a victory for Hesbollah’s armed resistance and became an inspiration to the current Palestinian intifada.

A negative response to a Gaza withdrawal is still likely if Palestinians continue to suspect Sharon’s intentions for the West Bank. Most observers agree that Sharon envisions not a maximal withdrawal roughly along the Green Line but a limited, minimal withdrawal, with continued settlement presence on nearly half of the West Bank. The results of this withdrawal, in the absence of Palestinian agreement, are likely to be dangerous.

Partial withdrawal from the West Bank would mean the continuation of the current chaos in the Palestinian territories, where in most cities, local armed gangs and criminals are increasingly outmuscling the nearly defunct Palestinian Authority. The ensuing chaos and lack of law and order means that groups like Hamas will thrive and the long-term threat of terror will remain. Israel would then need to continue military incursions into both Gaza and the West Bank, making any withdrawal devoid of the much-needed separation.

Can the United States do anything to help? Though a slippery slope of unilateralism seems increasingly likely, a different scenario is still possible. Intensive U.S. efforts to either restart negotiations or to at least choreograph the next few months could measurably change the situation.

Part of the problem today is that neither side sees any incentive to negotiate or even to cooperate. Sharon and Arafat both believe that they can get more out of unilateral actions.

Sharon has said that the Palestinians will get more if they negotiate, so he can give less if he acts unilaterally. Arafat, meanwhile, clearly thinks that unilateral concessions confirm the value of the intifada.

Only the United States has the capacity to slice through this dangerous calculus and precipitate a different way of thinking on both sides. Though success is not guaranteed, unilateralism could still be blended into the President Bush’s "road map" to peace strategy of performance-based progress toward a Palestinian state. Sharon’s offer could be used by a U.S. mediator to gain counterconcessions from the Palestinians, such as concrete action against terror.

Both sides would only be encouraged to take positive steps, knowing that an America committed to ensuring security and safety for both sides was unshakably committed to the process. In this sense, America can play the role of coordinator — making sure one gesture of good will is met with another, without depending on elusive bilateral breakthroughs to achieve an end to violence.

It can work. But it cannot happen without a forceful U.S. diplomatic presence. This means a complete overhaul of the current strategy, ideally in the form of a high-level special envoy assigned to handle the conflict on a full-time basis. No other mechanism holds the promise of resolving the delicate issues that are now in play.

Sharon has rolled the dice, and the president has a choice. He can take steps to influence the situation positively, or he can continue to watch the two sides slide further into conflict.

Steven Spiegel is associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations and a political science professor at UCLA. Gilead LIght is the deputy director of the Israel Policy Forum’s branch in Washington, D.C.