- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson on the subject of second marriages, what the world witnesses in Gaza is a triumph of hope over experience.

Again the Israelis are pulling back, much as they did after the Oslo Accords of 1993. And again the withdrawal is supposed to be the first step toward peace with an Arab neighbor, this time a nascent Palestinian state.

It’s not the first time. Back in the 1990s, the Israelis agreed to pull out of Gaza on the Mediterranean and Jericho on the West Bank in return for promises of peace. Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization was to recognize Israel’s right to exist, control its own crazies and punish disturbers of the peace. We all know how that turned out.

Alas, the whole, carefully assembled house of cards collapsed. Instead of peace coming stage by stage, war did. The anticlimax of the whole process came at Camp David, when Israel’s Ehud Barak proposed a Palestinian state that would consist of Gaza, almost all the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem to boot. Arafat left without making a counteroffer. It was clear he had decided instead to launch a second intifada, and suicide bombings soon were the new vogue.

Not till another informal but bloody war was fought, and the Israelis began building their wall — excuse me, Security Barrier — did an uneasy tension begin to supplant the violence. Now the Israelis are taking another unilateral step in hopes of imposing a peace. Or at least a breathing spell. For the dazzling dreams of Oslo are not only long gone but almost forgotten.

But the Israelis press ahead anyway, despite opposition from settlers and their louder supporters, and those who believe Israel making concessions without getting something tangible in return will lead not to peace but the next war. By something tangible, they mean break-up of terrorist organizations like Hamas, which now competes with the Palestinian Authority.

There is no sign Hamas is at all weakening; on the contrary, it appears to be growing stronger. And it may grow stronger still after this latest Israeli withdrawal, which it will hail as a great victory achieved by its force.

As for the majority of Israelis who favor the pullout, they have little but hope on their side — and one other, maybe decisive factor: Arafat isn’t around anymore to talk peace while simultaneously waging a not-so-secret war.

Besides, defending the settlements in the Gaza Strip has steadily drained the Israeli military, Israeli morale in general and the peaceful Arab residents of the Strip, who must negotiate a series of humiliating checkpoints just to travel a few miles.

Ariel Sharon, certainly no peacenik, has again proven a pragmatist and chooses to withdraw to more defensible borders. This won’t be the first time he has dismantled Israeli settlements; a younger Arik Sharon was the commander in charge of moving his fellow Israelis out of Sinai to make peace with Egypt. But then he was dealing with a foreign government, not a collection of militias like those maneuvering for control of Gaza as the Israelis leave it to its uncertain fate.

A stable, democratic state in the Mideast can arise out of intramural rivalries. Only the historians may now pay much attention to modern Israel’s own origins, and remember that in 1948 David Ben-Gurion’s fledgling government was challenged by at least a couple of guerrilla movements — including outright terrorists like the Stern Gang plus Menachem Begin’s Irgun, not wholly innocent of terrorist outrages itself.

There were those back then who urged Ben-Gurion to govern in tandem with the Jewish militias, allowing them their own military units and zones of operation. He would have none of it. A state, Israel’s first premier understood, must have only one army. Even at the cost of a brief but shocking civil war, Israel’s founding father put down Begin’s challenge.

Now much the same challenge confronts Mahmoud Abbas, the putative leader of a new Palestinian state. What happens in the next few days as the Israelis move out their own diehards may be dramatic but it will matter less than what happens in the next few months, or even years, as Mahmoud Abbas tries to assert his authority over Hamas. This will determine whether he presides over a Palestinian state or a state of confusion.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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