The unilateral Israeli plan for disengagement from Gaza has gained further momentum recently with the appointment of former head of the World Bank James Wolfensohn as the Quartet’s special envoy on the matter.
The first visits here of Wolfensohn have seen heated discussions on many topics, notably about whether or not this unilateral Israeli plan is in any way, shape or form going to be coordinated with the Palestinian side.
Of course it is useful to be clear here what is meant by coordination. The plan by definition and name is unilateral. Its main characteristics were already determined some time ago in internal Israeli-Israeli discussions and negotiations and Knesset voting. Little if anything has been left to coordination.
One of the main Palestinian criticisms of this plan is exactly its unilateral nature. The Palestinian side has consistently been demanding negotiations rather than unilateralism, to which there has been no Israeli response. This is despite the recent Israeli media campaign suggesting that Israel is ready to negotiate but it is the Palestinians that are hesitant.
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there are two major categories of issues now to be coordinated. First and foremost are the significant characteristics of the project. How can the disengagement be a part of the roadmap, and what stage of the roadmap does it fall under? What is the actual extent of the withdrawal? Where will crossings into Gaza be located and by what rules will they operate? What will happen at the border with Egypt? What will be the status of the movement of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank? What will be the status of the movement of goods and people between Gaza and the outside world in general? What about the re-opening of the airport and the construction of a seaport? What is the future of Palestinian labor in Israel?
All of these questions are fundamental aspects of the plan and basic necessities in terms of Palestinian planning purposes. On all of these issues, Israel has either been deciding unilaterally or discussing them with third parties without any negotiation with the Palestinian side.
The second category of issues, which Israel for a long time delayed talking about, comprises the practical and technical aspects of the plan and information necessary for the Palestinian side to ensure a smooth transfer of responsibility for the management and utilization of whatever Israel will leave behind in these settlements. These questions include the exact nature of infrastructure facilities in the settlements, details of the productive agricultural and industrial products there, what will be left behind and what will be destroyed, etc.
This second category of issues is one the Palestinian side has long wanted to discuss but the Israeli side until recently kept delaying. Without proper information on these issues, again, Palestinian planning abilities are irreparably impaired.
One of the main fears the Palestinian side has at the political and strategic levels is the possible separation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank into separate and discrete units. Gaza is not economically viable on its own, and without some mechanism to ensure the integration of the Gazan and West Bank economies, the Israeli disengagement will have no economic benefits whatsoever. Indeed, the integration of the economies of the Palestinian territories in general is a key Palestinian strategic imperative.
All the above concerns were raised in discussions with Wolfensohn, who the Palestinians would have preferred to have played a more comprehensive role to include not only the economic aspects of this unilateral Israeli plan, but also the political. The future economic prospects in the Palestinian territories are strongly tied to the political reality. In addition, the Quartet countries’ support of the disengagement plan was always conditioned on ensuring that the plan was implemented as part of the roadmap. Together, the two should mean that Wolfensohn’s mission is about facilitating the implementation of the roadmap in general.