Gaza Withdrawal’s Aftermath is Key

Ariel Kastner and Sarah Yerkes
Sarah Yerkes Former Brookings Expert, Fellow, Middle East Program - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

August 16, 2005

In the foreign policy arena, there is a danger of putting more work into planning watershed events than into advancing the policies that the events represent. This week is seminal, with Israel beginning its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

It would be a mistake for the United States to concentrate more on the success of the actual Israeli withdrawal than on establishing a long-term commitment to both the Israelis and the Palestinians by assisting the Palestinian Authority in reforming.

No doubt, many will look to label the withdrawal a success if there is minimal violence over the course of the formal disengagement. But the success of the disengagement will not be based on the few weeks it takes for Israeli soldiers and settlers to leave the Gaza Strip. The real test will come in the weeks and months that follow as the Palestinian Authority is faced with the challenge of turning Gaza into a nonviolent, viable partial state with transparent institutions that is accountable to its citizens.

The United States has played an important role in assisting with the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza, but it would be a grave mistake for the Bush administration now to turn its back on the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian Authority is faced with an incredible challenge—to take its nascent institutions and turn them into a functioning state.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s senior adviser, James Wilkinson, recently traveled to Ramallah to assist Abbas in improving transparency and accountability within the Palestinian government. This was a good first step. The next steps should follow suit with the administration using U.S. envoys James Wolfensohn, Lt. Gen. William Ward and others on the ground to help Abbas over the long term strengthen democratic institutions and improve the functioning of the government. While this might not make front-page headlines, these measures will make the United States’ long-term commitment clear to both sides and create the necessary environment for future negotiations.

The first sign of whether the disengagement is a success will be the Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January. This will be the key showdown between Abbas and the terrorist group Hamas. Strong gains by Hamas will be interpreted to mean that the violence against Israelis paid off, whereas solid support for Fatah will be interpreted to mean that moderation has its rewards. The results will affect upcoming Israeli elections—most likely being held in the spring.

Gains by Hamas will legitimize the argument of hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu—who recently set up his bid for prime minister by resigning from Ariel Sharon’s government—that disengagement would aid extremists. In turn, there would be an increased chance that the Israeli public would close itself off to a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Behind-the-scenes steps by the Bush administration to improve the internal functioning of the Palestinian Authority can prevent this destructive chain reaction. Palestinians will be more likely to support Abbas and his Fatah party if his decisions are transparent and his institutions are accountable. As a consequence, Israelis will be more likely to negotiate with and trust an authority that is capable of fulfilling its commitments.

One has only to look back at the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians to understand the danger of believing the event is more important than the follow-through. The secret talks in Oslo were planned impeccably, and the pomp and circumstance of the handshake on the White House lawn was picture-perfect. But in the long run the Oslo Accords were a failure because soon afterward Israelis and Palestinians became disillusioned that the commitments in the accords never came to fruition. While Israelis continued building settlements, Palestinians failed to crack down on terrorism, and the frustration and disappointment felt by both sides erupted in the form of renewed violence.

George W. Bush, like most second-term presidents, is out to create a legacy. What he should recognize is that history books will laud him if he is the president who set the stage for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than a president who helped make a momentous event possible and then walked away.