An imperfect world

In a perfect world, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza would be coordinated from start to finish. Indeed, in a perfect world we wouldn’t need unilateral disengagement, because we would have a peace process based on a genuine strategy –Israeli, Palestinian and, hopefully, American–for peace . Israeli withdrawal and disengagement from Palestinian areas would be part and parcel of an extensive and phased agreement leading to the creation of a viable Palestinian state that enables Israel to prosper as a Jewish and a democratic state.

But our world is imperfect and we have to learn to make the best of it. It is imperfect, because Ariel Sharon is not interested in a peace process; he prefers the unilateral route. It is imperfect because Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is hard put to stop the violence and solidify his rule, and remains faithful to final status formulae regarding "existential" issues like the right of return that render a peace process a potentially frustrating route. And finally, it is imperfect because George W. Bush has yet to commit energetically to backing a peace process.

Under these circumstances, disengagement is the only game in town. Sharon formulated it as a unilateral measure some 18 months ago not only because his potential interlocutor for a bilateral process at the time was Yasser Arafat, with whom peace seemed impossible. Sharon also needed a response to pressures for a Geneva-type process or some equivalent form of movement. Sharon opted for unilateral disengagement at a time when it was certain to be carried out under fire and without coordination of any sort, because he prefers it that way.

This is not an endorsement of Sharon’s approach. We’d be far better off with a prime minister with Sharon’s determination but with a readiness, indeed an eagerness, to find and work with viable Palestinian partners. But it’s an imperfect world. No Israeli government for the past 20 years has proven capable of completing a peace process with the Palestinians. Sharon, who is not likely to be replaced in the near future by a political dove, in any case never supported any of Israel’s negotiated peace deals with its Arab neighbors. He prefers a process that he initiates and controls; one that keeps him off the slippery slope of concessions and counter-concessions. He apparently doesn’t believe in the possibility or viability of peace; but he does understand that we have to begin withdrawing and dismantling settlements, and he is better equipped as a leader than anyone else in Israeli politics to do the job.

So if any aspects of the Gaza disengagement are coordinated, Sharon’s unspoken condition will be that this not lead us into a peace process. How he will deal with pressures for such a process after disengagement is not clear; he may not know himself. Meanwhile, one of the reasons he is inclined to support destroying the settlers’ houses in Gaza is precisely because this enables him to avoid yet another fertile field for coordination that could become dangerous, whereas destroying the houses–which in actual fact fulfills an explicit request of the PA/PLO–is paradoxically a safe form of "coordination".

Meanwhile, too, Sharon has enabled Vice Premier Shimon Peres to set up a number of inter-ministerial teams for coordinating economic aspects of disengagement. He has done so because of pressure from the US, coalition considerations, and here and there possibly because he sees some benefit for Israel, e.g., in improving the efficiency of transit points and developing the Gazan economy so that fewer Gazans will be destitute or seek work in Israel.

But once disengagement has been carried out, I would not assume his unqualified ongoing cooperation with any of these economic projects. He won’t need Peres any more since elections will be imminent. And he won’t want any sort of coordination that begins to look too much like a peace process.

This is the imperfect world we currently live in. If, after disengagement, Abu Mazen can claim success in his reforms, including disarming Palestinian militants, and can gain the confidence of the Israeli public, and if Bush decides to devote some real political capital to the process, then Sharon could become a real impediment. For the time being, however, we’ll have to do it his way. Because his way moves us, however briefly and disjointedly, in the right direction. It’s the best we can do in this imperfect world.