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Expand the withdrawal, now

Is it possible to continue to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track until elections are held in Israel and in the PA? That is the question which concerns many people in Israel, Palestine and the international community. There is no doubt that, with the impending final exit of Israel from the Gaza Strip, there is an international expectation that the Palestinian Authority will undertake full control of Gaza. According to the Palestinians, the determination of who holds sovereignty in Gaza and whether or not the Israeli occupation has ended depends primarily on the arrangements that will be made in the coming weeks on the control of Gaza's borders, including the future of Gaza's sea- and airports.

Israel is intent on declaring the end of its occupation over Gaza and, therefore, agreements reached will be based on Israel's desire to reach agreed-upon limitations to Palestinian sovereignty on issues mainly concerning the entrance of goods to Gaza.

Assuming that the agreements reached are satisfactory to the Palestinian Authority, there will be a need to determine who actually holds sovereignty over Gaza. In what seems to be an attempt to postpone that judgment, the Palestinians have now raised a new issue concerning the demarcation of Gaza's northern border. They are claiming that the Green Line set in the Rhodes armistice agreement of 1949 set the "border" north of Erez at Nahal Shikma.

The Palestinians have apparently forgotten that in January 1950 Israel and Egypt agreed on a land swap that enlarged the Gaza Strip at A'basan, between Khan Yunis and Rafah, while setting the northern border further south at Erez. This was the official line on June 4, 1967 before the Six Day War and the lines that UN Security Council Resolution 242 obligates Israel to withdraw to.

By raising this issue now it seems that the Palestinians are attempting to find a reason not to claim sovereignty over Gaza. Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza would place the Palestinian Authority in a position that it does not yet know how to digest.
If the Palestinians hold sovereignty over Gaza would a Palestinian state in fact come into existence in Gaza? If yes, then in that respect we will find ourselves entering Phase II of the road map a Palestinian state with provisional borders.

The concept of a state with provisional borders has been rejected by the Palestinian leadership claiming that this will essentially be the fulfillment of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's long-standing idea of a long-term interim agreement. The Palestinians reject the idea of another interim agreement, fearing it might take decades before permanent status is arrived at and the important issues of final borders, Jerusalem and refugees are resolved.

The Palestinians, however, may find themselves in a situation where accepting the state with provisional borders is inescapable as the reality on the ground may overtake political wishes.

If this scenario does unfold the Palestinians could, in theory, also demand full control over other areas of the West Bank that Israel vacates such as the north of the West Bank. Since Israel is interested in implementing the concept of a Palestinian state with provisional borders, it should enable the new reality and decide to vacate the two remaining settlements in the Jenin area Hermesh and Mevo Dotan which would vacate an area for Palestinian control three times the size of Gaza.

IT IS essential that any further steps in the political process be advanced through a fully negotiated and coordinated process. Since the successful takeover of Gaza by the Palestinian Authority is a prerequisite to any further advances in a peace process, Israel must be conscious of the struggle in Gaza between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas concerning who owns the disengagement narrative.

Right now Hamas is leading in that struggle. A large majority of Palestinians believe that the Israeli decision to disengage was a result of the armed struggle led by Hamas.

Despite this, Palestinians' public opinion polls have shown their first priority today concerns the economy and not the armed struggle. Following concern for economic welfare are issues concerning the end of occupation, including free movement and checkpoints, then corruption in the PA, and then the rule of law and order. Collapse of law and order is a major threat in the perception of the Palestinian public.

The question of ownership of the disengagement narrative should be of equal importance to Israel because it is one of the main questions likely to determine the strength of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Israel has a direct interest in strengthening the Palestinian Authority and enabling it to demonstrate the fruits of diplomacy and good governance.

CAN SHARON move forward on this front prior to elections in Israel? The answer is a clear yes. Sharon has made personal commitments to President George W. Bush on the removal of unauthorized outposts. Some commentators in the Israeli media have suggested that the Americans won't apply pressure on Sharon now because of his precarious political position inside the Likud. However, David Welsh, assistant under secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, last week reminded his Israeli interlocutors that the US has not forgotten this commitment and expects Israel to take actions against the unauthorized outposts.

Regardless of if Sharon leaves the Likud or manages to delay primaries there, it is clear that he has lost the support of the settlers and the religious Right. He needs to target the center and center-right of the Israeli public. This sector of the population wants Israel to be guided by the rule of law and has no sympathy for the hilltop youth who set up the unauthorized outposts under the nose of the IDF and the civil administration with the assistance of various politicians and ministers.

Taking action on the unauthorized outposts now will strengthen and consolidate Sharon's position with these sectors of the population, who happen to form the majority of Israeli society.

These steps will also find great favor in the international community, where the fruits of disengagement are already quite evident. If the removal of the outposts is also coordinated with the Palestinian Authority being able to take control over more evacuated areas, then there will also be clear benefits the Palestinian Authority will be able to present to its public.

These steps should occur parallel to the withdrawal of Israeli control over all the Palestinian cities and the removal of roadblocks and internal checkpoints throughout the West Bank.

IN ORDER for all this to happen, the PA must succeed in Gaza. There is a direct linkage between Palestinian Authority success and the future political career of Sharon. If the disengagement blows up in our faces, it will be a clear victory for former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu and he will ride that victory right in the prime minister's seat.

There is a clear understanding in Palestine that keeping the cease-fire is in the interest of everyone. Even Hamas understands that its political future is directly linked to the cease-fire, as it has decided that it is imperative now to be fully integrated into the legitimate Palestinian political arena. Hamas has decided to keep the cease-fire as long as there are no direct and aggressive provocations from Israel such as targeted killings.

There is now an unusual opportunity to link the interests of all of the players Sharon, the PA and Hamas in a way that can actually advance incremental steps toward peace.

This falls far short of what the Israeli Left wants, or what the Palestinian desire. But, nevertheless, it can move the process forward and bring us closer to the point when permanent status negotiations could be resumed.

The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research & Information.

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