Wednesday, June 20, 2007

After meeting with President Bush in Washington this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will return next week to Israel in time to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on June 25.

Prior to the violent Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Mr. Olmert was expected to be pressured to accept the proposals of U.S. Security Coordinator General Keith Dayton (also called the “benchmarks”). One of them would allow truck convoys to connect the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This, the administration postulated, was a necessary first step to ultimately establish “safe passage,” viewed as an integral part of a future “viable Palestinian state.”

Right now a connection between Gaza and the West Bank seems the best way to assure that the West Bank fall to Hamas as well. Had Israel acquiesced to this U.S. plan several months ago, when it was first brought up by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Hamas would have been well-positioned today to complete its conquest of all the territories of the Palestinian Authority. At this point, there likely will be somewhat of a hiatus in diplomatic initiatives of this sort. This provides time for observers to consider when this idea, even if proposed again under future circumstances is at all necessary and advisable.

For more than 10 years, such initiatives have been undertaken to foist different versions of “connectivity,” “contiguity” and “continuity” on successive Israeli governments. This misguided venture has never been subject to careful analysis. Amazingly, this idea has taken root, just as the Gaza Strip has been descending into total chaos.

At this stage, the U.S. was speaking of truck convoys. This concept is one of the surviving legacies of the Oslo years though there is no requirement resembling this in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and it was only suggested as a form of so-called “safe passage” in the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement, one of the eight failed Oslo-era efforts in the mid-1990s.

It is vital to bear history in mind. For nearly two decades, from the end of the Israel’s War of Independence in 1949 to the Six-Day War in 1967, there was no physical connection at all between Gaza and the West Bank. They were completely separate territories. The former was under Egyptian military rule and the latter had been annexed illegally to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Calls for contiguity and safe passage are even beyond the maximalist Palestinian demand that a Palestinian State be established along the pre-1967 armistice lines. Besides the issue of legal rights, there are practical risks as well. The daily volleys of Qassam rockets that strike the Israeli town of Sderot and its neighboring communities offers advance notice of the nature (if not the ferocity) of threatened violence were Hamas able to fulfill its threat to strike Israel’s core by bringing terrorist know-how and smuggled weapons from Gaza to the West Bank. Israel should never have put itself in a position that requires it to have to agree to a Palestinian road slicing it in its middle, because the world has become obsessed with Palestinian contiguity.

Repeated efforts by the administration in this area seem based on the concept that countries can’t survive without territorial unity. Tell that to Angola or Russia, Azerbaijan or Brunei. Or to Croatia or East Timor — all of which are viable and noncontiguous — that is, separated by the sovereign soil of a foreign state. Has anyone heard of Alaska? Or tell it to any of the scores of countries separated by the oceans from hundreds or even thousands of their islands. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no precedent in international law or diplomatic practice requiring nations that have been formed in distinctly different territorial areas to have a link between them to be viable or eligible for international recognition. Territorial contiguity is not a statehood prerequisite.

Likewise, it is often claimed that the Palestinian areas are too small to be viable. Nonsense. Many nations are smaller than the would-be state of Palestine, yet manage just fine, thank you. Singapore, for example, is one-tenth the size of the West Bank and Gaza combined and it is doing wonderfully. Or the Muslim state of Brunei, which is successful despite being both discontinuous and small.

When diplomacy is restarted at some point in the future, officials will have to think out of the box and not just return unthinkingly to the policies of the 1990s that clearly didn’t work. Maybe, considering their difference, Gaza and the West Bank will evolve separately and new political structures will have to be considered that take that possibility into account.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert can go back to these outdated proposals from the 1990s, including the call to physically connect the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the future. The changes that have occurred with the Hamas takeover in Gaza, however, may give both leaders some reason to pause in order to consider that the solution to making both these territories viable for the Palestinians is to involve the neighboring states in stabilizing the situation.

The Gaza Strip has become an al Qaeda sanctuary since 2005 because Egypt has not devoted sufficient resources to prevention of smuggling men and materiel across the Sinai-Gaza border, known as the Philadelphi Corridor. At this point, Egypt should become the focus of firm diplomatic efforts to close off the reinforcement of the Hamas regime by global jihadi groups.

On the other side, Jordan has played a more responsible role in stabilizing the security of the West Bank — from without — in recent years. Its efforts should be further encouraged or even expanded.

Keeping the instability of the current Middle East outside the Israeli-Palestinian equation will set the stage for eventual diplomatic engagement in the future. But slicing Israel in two, because of outdated ideas of Palestinian contiguity will only bring the chaotic and radical conditions that have been a part of life in the Gaza Strip for years into the more moderate West Bank, as well, and thereby spread further the instability now sweeping the whole region. Can this road to ruin serve any justifiable purpose?

Justus Reid Weiner is the co-author of the new monograph titled “Linking the Gaza Strip with the West Bank: Implications of a Palestinian Corridor Across Israel.” Mr. Weiner is scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent multidisciplinary policy institute.

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