- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2005

Though 60 percent of Israelis believe the evacuation of Gaza, sacred Jewish land from time immemorial, was desirable in the quest for a lasting peace, television images of desperate settlers forcibly evicted by Israeli soldiers caused a national trauma.

For Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, these scenes represent a triumph of terrorism over diplomacy. Does anyone really believe Israel would have given up a territory it conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War without Intifada I and II and modern-day kamikazes? Given the population ratio, 1,200 Israelis killed in the past four years is the equivalent of 50,000 Americans.

Certainly good Palestinian democrats who believe in the rule of law didn’t persuade Israel to give up Gaza. Hamas is increasingly popular among Gaza’s almost 1.5 million Palestinians. Their average age is 16. Unemployment runs as high as 50 percent. There was no shortage of jihadi volunteers for suicide bombing or other forms of terrorism. So there was no future for 8,500 Israelis in 21 settlements guarded by 50,000 Israeli soldiers. Nor much future for Palestinians either.

Gaza is a political and economic wreck. A few idealists who believe in the tooth fairy can see Gaza as the next Dubai, the world’s glitziest city-state, a blend of how Hong Kong and Beirut once were. But the oil-rich countries of the Gulf — the recent oil price bonanza gushes $120 million a day for the United Arab Emirates alone — are not about to cough up seed money for the mirage of a white elephant. Both sides now expect Uncle Sam to pay the peace piper.

Mr. Sharon hopes the U.S. will double its annual aid for the next year to a little less than $6 billion. This would pay for resettling Gaza’s new Jewish refugees in Israel proper, and defray the $2 billion cost of building the 420-mile barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. Each family gets up to $300,000 in compensation for the compulsory evacuation. An unknown number plan to start over again in the West Bank.

For Palestinian extremists, it’s now what next after Gaza. For a growing number of Israelis, it’s now Gaza last — the last time Israelis will be forced out of their homes anywhere, except for four tiny hilltop settlements with 700 inhabitants in the northern West Bank that are part of the Gaza package deal.

Arab radicals have seen Israel abandon southern Lebanon and now Gaza. It would be surprising if Iraqi insurgency leaders didn’t conclude U.S. opinion is beginning to tire of Iraq as Israelis tired of Gaza.

It could be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s last hurrah as a political leader. He conquered Gaza in the first two days of the Six-Day war, then led the campaign to coax Israelis into settling there.

To attempt the Gaza solution for the West Bank’s 240,000 Israelis in 140 settlements to make room for a Palestinian state would be political suicide. That prompted Brent Scowcroft, George Bush the elder’s national security adviser, to say last October that Mr. Sharon’s peace plan is to get out of Gaza and four illegal outposts in the West Bank — and call it a day.

Mr. Sharon’s likely successor is the still tougher and younger former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently resigned from the government over the Gaza evacuation issue.

The sine qua non for a “viable” and “contiguous” Palestinian state as pledged by President Bush is a West Bank no longer pockmarked by fortresslike Israeli settlements, connected by roads under Israeli sovereignty; a capital in Arab East Jerusalem; a land corridor connecting Gaza with the West Bank under Palestinian sovereignty; and adjustments in Israel’s electronic wall-ditch-razor wire barrier now snaking in and out of Palestinian land.

Apart from the Peace Now idealists on both sides, no one can foresee such an outcome any time soon. Mr. Sharon has pre-empted the Palestinian demand for an Arab capital in East Jerusalem by surrounding it with Israeli settlements, cutting off access to the West Bank. These are not temporary homes, but a solid expansion of greater Israeli Jerusalem.

In President Bush’s mind, the return of Gaza to Palestinian sovereignty is a first step on the road map to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. To Israel’s dominant Likud Party, disengagement was not part of a broader strategic plan linked to the West Bank. Judea and Samaria as the land of the Jews go back 3,300 years.

The majority of religious Jews in Israel see disengagement from these Jewish lands as illegitimate and evil because it contradicts divine commandment as seen by rabbis and yeshiva, or religious seminary heads. Such were the imperatives that led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

The Bush Doctrine holds that democracy is the best solution for most problems facing the Muslim world. But throughout the Middle East, Islamists are emerging as the political mainstream. In a truly free election in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoys massive support in the whole region, would eclipse President Hosni Mubarak’s backers. Is the United States prepared to deal with Islamist parties as the democratic alternative to presently friendly authoritarian regimes?

In any event, Israel is not prepared to live cheek by jowl with an Islamist neighbor. Ineluctably, a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be irredentist, seeking to recover Palestinian land to the west —i.e., Israel.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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