July 20, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Gaza Gamble

In a few weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to turn Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority. Angry protests have shaken Israel. Gun battles have broken out among rival Palestinian factions inside Gaza. Meanwhile, terrorists continue to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel.

And this is the easy part.

The hard part will come in mid-August when Israeli soldiers actually knock on doors and tell families they must now leave their homes. And it will come when – or if — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas make a serious attempt to establish the authority of his government.

The hope is that Israel's “disengagement” can kick-start a new peace process. If Abbas takes control in Gaza and rids it of terrorist cells and rocket factories, progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state that would live in peace next to Israel is possible. But if, as many fear, Gaza becomes a safe haven for terrorists under the control of Hamas, Israeli soldiers will return to Gaza and the Arab-Israeli conflict will continue more or less as it has for over half a century.

Israel has agreed also to evacuate some settlements in the northern West Bank. But it is unlikely to give up much more than that — until and unless the Gaza experiment proves a success. 

Assume the hopeful scenario. What would come next? Many commentators argue that sooner or later Israel will have to agree to retreat to “the 1967 borders.” In reality, those are the armistice lines that separated the Israeli and Jordanian armies at the termination of the 1949 Arab-Israeli war. But those unofficial and unrecognized borders proved insecure when, in 1967, virtually all Israel's Arab neighbors attempted to “rid ourselves of Israel once and for all,'' as Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer phrased it.

Sharon has surprised his critics – and infuriated many in his conservative Likud Party — by taking real risks for peace in alliance with his erstwhile foes in the liberal Labor party. Even so, it is not conceivable that he would leave Israel more vulnerable than he found it when he took office. He will be adamant that Israel get what it has been promised: “secure and recognized borders.” 

Who made that promise? The international community did, in UN Security Council Resolution 242 of Nov. 22, 1967 — the only agreed basis for negotiations between Israel and all its Arab neighbors. 

Resolution 242 also calls on Israel to relinquish land occupied in the 1967 war – but not to withdraw from all territories since, by definition, that would leave Israel without secure borders. Every American president since Lyndon Johnson has confirmed this understanding of 242.

If giving up all of the West Bank would mean unacceptable insecurity, how much territory must Israel retain to be reasonably safe from future aggression? That question is being asked and answered by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank headed by Dore Gold, an author, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and advisor to senior Israeli office holders.

Gold's approach is to focus on the “minimal territorial requirements” that will enable Israel to defend itself “based on a purely professional military perspective.” While recognizing that Israelis have national, historical, cultural and religious interests in the West Bank – formerly known as Judea and Samaria — Gold argues that security must be Israel's “first priority in deciding how this disputed territory is to be divided.” And the goal must be to ensure Israel's survival over the long term.

The Middle East has changed since 1967 and it is possible that a historic transformation is now taking place – albeit with great pain – in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and other countries in the region. But no one can confidently predict what any of these countries will look like in a decade or more.

The new West Bank security barrier has prevented many suicide bombers from reaching their targets. But Gold and the military strategists working with him are convinced that a fence alone can not counter all the threats Israel needs to guard against.

Finding a formula that gives Israel secure borders while also giving Palestinians the chance to establish an independent and viable state is not impossible — but it won't be easy. And it won't happen at all if Sharon loses the bet he is making, if turning Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority ends up putting Israelis in greater peril than they were before making this significant territorial concession.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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