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No longer a pariah state

I am writing from Sweden, where I am attending an international conference on water. Today's session dealt with possibilities for water cooperation in the Middle East. There were delegates from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and many Europeans.

This is the first international event being held since the beginning of the disengagement. The impact of the withdrawal for the Israeli participants is obvious. No longer the pariah in international settings, Israeli participants are more than welcome. Everyone is curious and interested in hearing our analysis of the situation back home. Everyone is amazingly knowledgeable about the details: They know the names of the settlements, they have all watched Israeli soldiers and police on television carrying settlers out of their homes.

They are all in awe of the fact that Ariel Sharon is the prime minister who is pulling Israel out of the Gaza occupation. There is great admiration for Israel's democracy, even from the Arab participants. In the past, when I attended international conferences with Lebanese and Syrian participants, I was boycotted by them, together with the other Israeli participants.

Today I was approached by the Lebanese and Syrian participants to engage in discussion and not in secret, but right in front of everyone else. Israel's international reputation has reached new heights.

I TOO look at the disengagement in awe. I look at how much energy and resources are being spent in undoing something we should have never done in the first place. Why did it take Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and other Likud leaders so many years to learn the errors of their actions? How could they ever have thought that the settlement movement in Gaza had a real chance of achieving something positive for Israel? How long will it take before they come to the same conclusion regarding the West Bank?

Of course a case can be made for Israel's rights to the holy places and sites in the West Bank. There is no doubt that the Bible tells a story that took place in Hebron, Beit El, Ofra, and throughout the West Bank. This is not the point.

The Land of Israel was never a land without a people for a people without a land. Even if there was significant immigration of Arabs to Palestine after the birth of the Zionist movement, the fact remains that in the Land of Israel there are two peoples the Jewish people and the Palestinian people.

In November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the land into two states Jewish and Arab that Arab state was to be the Palestinian state. Palestinian nationalism wasn't born in 1967, as so many Israelis would like to think.

It is time for Israel to come to terms with the reality that there is no chance for it to continue to colonize the West Bank. What we have begun in Gaza must now continue in the West Bank.

Some Israeli personalities such as Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon have proposed that Israel now withdraw to the west of the separation barrier. They say that all of the settlements to the east of the barrier should now be dismantled as well. Their general direction is correct, but it is faulty in the same way that the disengagement from Gaza is faulty.

The Gaza disengagement must be the last unilateral step Israel takes. The next steps must be part of a negotiated process. It must be done with the moderate leaders of the Palestinian territory. What we do has the power to either weaken the moderates or strengthen them. We must be very conscious that our actions not empower the radical fundamentalist groups among the Palestinians.

I WAS in Gaza last week on the Palestinian side. The most impressive thing I heard from everyone I spoke with was their response to my question: What will happen next? They all said, It depends on what we Palestinians do now.

This is the first time I can recall Palestinians saying they have direct responsibility for the events that will unfold in the coming weeks. I witnessed the deployment of Palestinian forces in Gaza around the settlements. I was impressed by the seriousness of their actions.

The Palestinians are undertaking an aggressive media campaign calling on the public to demonstrate restraint after the Israelis leave the area. They are busy planning for their full takeover of Gaza. The last thing the Palestinian Authority wants the world to see is the kind of looting that took place after the fall of Baghdad. The Palestinian leadership is intent on proving to the world, including Israel and their own people, that the Palestinians are capable of taking over Gaza and governing the area with a commitment to the rule of law.

There are many challenges ahead of them. Israel can do a lot to help the PA succeed; it can also do a lot to ensure its failure.

Decisions regarding access points in and out of Gaza must be made. Palestinians must be in control of their border crossing with Egypt without Israeli presence and control. Israel has valid concerns regarding the possible smuggling of weapons.

Meanwhile, Palestinian businessmen in Gaza are afraid of unlimited cheap imports from Egypt that would destroy the manufacturing industries in Gaza.

THERE ARE two choices here on the table one of moving the crossing point for goods south so that it will remain under Israeli control, or of employing a credible international company to take charge in Rafah. Either of these options is workable and the parties must come to agreement on them immediately. It seems that the crossing for people at Rafah under Egyptian and Palestinian control is acceptable to Israel. This might be a good compromise separating the passage of people from the passage for goods.

The issue of passage between the West Bank and Gaza must also be finalized immediately. It seems that an agreement is being reached on a convoy system of buses and trucks run by the Israeli army. This is a good temporary measure to ensure the linkage of the two Palestinian territories. It demands that the Erez and Karni crossings be upgraded immediately and that "door-to-door" shipments be made possible, as opposed to the disastrous current system of "back-to-back" which makes commerce almost impossible.

But the most important thing is that we return to the negotiating table. Both Sharon and Mofaz have declared that we will now return to the road map. They both stated, incorrectly, that the Palestinians must now fulfill their road map obligations prior to Israel fulfilling its obligations. This is not the correct interpretation of the road map, and it will not work.

The road map is a bilateral, internationally assisted process for getting back to the negotiating table in order to bring about peace. Let's not waste more time, more resources and more lives in getting to what everyone knows is the inevitable truth.

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