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Exodus strategy

August 01, 2005

Israel's planned removal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza this month can be a prelude to lasting peace only if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government starts better coordinating the withdrawal with Palestinians. He must also ensure that Palestinian residents and their goods can get into and out of the seaside strip after the withdrawal.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered that needed message to Israelis and Palestinians during her recent trip to Israel and the West Bank. She said the U.S., which gives Israel $3 billion a year in aid and has been asked by Sharon for $2 billion more to help cover pullout expenses, also wants "connectivity" between Gaza and the West Bank. By that she means that the 1.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza and the 2.4 million living in the West Bank should have the freedom to move back and forth between the two areas.

Israel has valid concerns about its security, demonstrated again in recent days by Gaza-based mortar attacks (by the militant Palestinian group Hamas) on Israelis inside and outside Gaza. Such attacks could be diminished if Egypt helps patrol the southern Gaza border after the withdrawal, and Israel builds a rail line or highway with restricted access and side barriers to link Gaza more safely with the far larger West Bank.

Rice took pains to praise Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose security forces have stepped up attempts to end violence by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But Israel contends that Abbas has done too little to convert Hamas from a military to a political organization.

The reasons for an insufficient Palestinian response are several, but one stands out: The Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 provoked Israel into harsh crackdowns on the welter of security forces set up by Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Arafat's security forces were often criticized -- by Palestinians and Israelis alike -- for being corrupt and ineffective.

Abbas has restructured the police and paramilitary organizations that he inherited from Arafat and instructed them to arrest radicals attacking Israelis. However, an independent report last week by the Washington-based Strategic Assessments Initiative said the result was a security force with too many inept police, too little money and too few weapons, which diminished its ability to enforce peace inside the territories or keep militants from attacking Israelis as they leave Gaza.

Israel has delayed returning control over several West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority for fear they would become launching pads for such attacks. If Abbas' security forces cannot demonstrably maintain peace in Gaza, Sharon is unlikely to negotiate further withdrawals in the West Bank.

But if Israeli and Palestinian security forces, despite these drawbacks, can successfully coordinate the Gaza withdrawal, it could increase the confidence of Sharon and Abbas that they can continue to deal with each other. That could lead to other withdrawals and negotiations on difficult issues, such as formal borders, that need resolution before reaching the ultimate goal, which remains both constant and elusive: a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.

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