The Washington Post

The Day That Bush Took Gaza

Israel's Exit Plan Will Mean a U.S. Entrance

Call it an election-year device to please a domestic constituency, or a change in rhetoric based on deep-seated conviction. But whatever its origin, President Bush's embrace of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip is going to turn out to be more than a mere gesture.

Sharon's radical initiative would evacuate all Israeli settlements and military positions, unilaterally, within the next 18 months. His purpose is to end the Israeli occupation of Gaza and thereby absolve Israel of responsibility for the Palestinians there. Indeed, one of the articles of Sharon's disengagement plan declares that it will "obviate the claims about Israel with regard to its responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip."

But who's going to take over that responsibility? Not the tattered Palestinian Authority. Not cautious Egypt, which once ruled Gaza. Instead, de facto responsibility for what happens in Gaza once Israel withdraws will fall to the United States. That's the hidden meaning in the president's letter of assurance to Sharon saying that the United States will lead an international effort to build the capacity and will of Palestinian institutions to fight terrorism and prevent the areas from which Israel withdraws from posing a threat.

One wonders whether Bush really appreciates what he is getting himself and the United States into. Having trumpeted his support for an independent Palestinian state, he is now taking on responsibility for ensuring that the Gaza mini-state created by Israel's withdrawal does not turn into a failed terrorist state. The Palestinian institutions that Bush mentions in his letter of assurance do not now exist in Gaza. What does exist there is a collapsing Palestinian Authority and a mess of competing security organizations, warlords and terrorist organizations. If hooded Hamas terrorists end up dancing on the rooftops of Gaza settlements or indoctrinating Palestinian children in the former classrooms of Israeli settlers, Bush will be fielding the questions instead of Sharon. And if Israeli forces then reenter Gaza to stop a terrorist threat emanating from there, Bush could be held responsible for that, too. Indeed, in the eyes of the Arab world at least, his embrace of Sharon's initiative has already implicated him in Israel's subsequent killing of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the new Hamas leader in Gaza.

The irony in all this is that it puts Bush right where he'd rather not be. One of Bush's articles of faith since entering the White House has been that no good purpose is served by engaging in a Clinton-style effort to make peace in the Middle East. From time to time, however, circumstances have forced the president to stray from that tenet.

It happened in October 2001, when a threat from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to reevaluate his country's relationship with the United States jarred loose a presidential commitment to an independent Palestinian state. It happened in December 2002, when a desperate plea from Britain's Tony Blair in the run-up to the war in Iraq produced a presidential endorsement of the road map for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It happened in April 2003, when the Palestinians unexpectedly responded to a Bush demand that they empower a moderate Palestinian prime minister, prodding the president to convene a June Israeli-Palestinian summit in Aqaba, Jordan, despite his earlier declaration that he didn't do Middle East summitry.

On these previous occasions, flourishes of presidential rhetoric and flurries of U.S. diplomatic activity led nowhere and were quickly replaced by a return to Bush's default, do-little position. But this time, Bush has hitched America's diplomatic wagon to Ariel Sharon's bulldozer. Unlike other initiatives, Sharon's does not depend on a feckless Palestinian leadership for negotiation or implementation. The unilateral plan depends only on Sharon's ability to secure support from his right-wing constituency for evacuating settlements. Bush's willingness to reward Sharon with friendly adjustments in U.S. positions on the shape of final borders and the ultimate destination of Palestinian refugees has all but ensured that Sharon will secure a majority of Likud Party votes for a move that would essentially negate their ideology.

Like it or not, Bush's endorsement of the Sharon plan means that the United States will end up inheriting the problems of Gaza. Recognizing that Bush's new posture carries real consequences, the National Security Council staff has plunged into the most intensive negotiations with Israeli officials since the breakdown of Clinton-era efforts. And in a sign of White House anxiety about those consequences, Bush has asked Sharon to postpone the Gaza disengagement until after the U.S. elections, according to Israeli news reports.

Sooner or later, though, the president will have to figure out how to handle Gaza. He can, of course, turn to others to help ease the burden of this newly acquired responsibility. Egypt, for example has declared that its own national security interests require that order be maintained in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal. The Egyptian security services are already preparing to move into Gaza to help reorganize and retrain the Palestinian security forces there. However, the Egyptians will not put themselves in the awkward political position of policing the Palestinians.

The World Bank is discussing with the Israelis the idea that it would assume responsibility for developing the abandoned settlements, which occupy lands the size of Gaza City, including prime beach front real estate. But in one key respect, the World Bank is like the pope—it lacks military divisions. It will be unable to prevent Hamas militants and other armed gangs from marching on the settlements.

Heightening the president's new Gaza security dilemma is the fact that Israel is planning to retain control of the "Philadelphi" corridor that separates Gaza from Egypt, as well as the sea and air space around Gaza, in order to prevent the smuggling of terrorists and weapons into and out of the Strip. But this will enable the terrorist groups within Gaza to claim justification for continuing their attacks on Israel and refusing to disarm on the grounds that Israel has not really ended its occupation.

Ideally, a responsible Palestinian government would emerge in Gaza with an effective security force that would take control of the settlements, disarm the terrorist organizations and armed gangs, and police the borders and entry points. But the moon is closer to the earth than the Palestinians in Gaza are to achieving that state.

There is one answer to all of these challenges that Bush will have to contemplate—an American-led international force that could take over the settlements, police the corridor and control the sea and airspace around Gaza. This is not a large-scale endeavor and, unlike in Iraq, there would be plenty of countries ready to share the burden of helping to promote order in the first installment of a Palestinian state. But is George Bush ready to take on this responsibility as well? Given his feelings about multilateralism, it won't come naturally.

If things aren't going to be complicated enough on the security level, there are also a series of political dilemmas for Bush.

The president rightly brands Hamas a terrorist organization and therefore will have nothing to do with it. But because the more moderate nationalist forces in Gaza lack the capacity and will to confront Hamas, which enjoys considerable popular support, they have begun negotiations with Hamas leaders about power-sharing arrangements. And the Israelis and Egyptians are encouraging this discussion because they understand that it's the only way to prevent chaos in the wake of Israel's withdrawal.

In other words, in the worst case, the president will be responsible for Hamas taking over in Gaza, and in the best case he'll oversee a process in which Hamas will join in the governing of Gaza. This is a nuance which the president will have difficulty fitting into his ideological, anti-terror straitjacket. And the dilemmas certainly don't end there. In order to avoid the collapse of the Gaza economy, the president will need to turn to the European Union and the United Nations to repeat the efforts they undertook during the Oslo negotiations to rebuild the Gaza economic infrastructure and supervise quick-start employment projects that could begin to put Gazans back to work.

This comes at a time when Bush is already depending on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to oversee the establishment of a credible interim government in Iraq by the June 30 handover date. Moreover, he needs the EU to overcome its resistance to putting troops on the ground in Iraq if he is to lower the profile of U.S. forces there. In short, the president's need to spread the burden of responsibility in Gaza and Iraq at the same time renders him vulnerable to the demands of his putative partners in Palestinian state-building.

These chickens will come home to roost in early May, when the president convenes a meeting of "the Quartet" (the United States, the EU, the United Nations and Russia) to seek their tangible support for the Gaza initiative. What he is likely to discover then is that his partners will demand their own letter of U.S. assurance as recompense for their involvement. King Abdullah of Jordan, who will be meeting with the president in early May, has already opened the bidding in this regard. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak can be counted on to add to these demands.

Since Bush has already opened the final status issues by assuring the Israelis about borders and refugees, backers of the Palestinians can now demand elaboration of the U.S. positions on other final status issues. They will ask questions such as: If the United States is ready to recognize border adjustments for Israeli "population centers" in the West Bank, will it also endorse "territorial compensation" for the Palestinians?

Then Bush will confront his ultimate political dilemma: In an election year, can he afford to water down his support for Israel for the sake of ensuring the international involvement that he needs in order to prevent a failed terrorist state from emerging?

Welcome to Gaza, Mr. President.