Fig leaf or prelude to progress?

Optimists on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are basing their hopes on a number of recent changes. These include the Labor-Likud coalition in Israel, the new-old administration in Washington, the absence of late President Yasser Arafat and the smooth transition and upcoming elections in Palestine.

The coalition in Israel seems to be the least significant among these, though it can be considered an indicator of possible change in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s speech at the Herzliya Conference did not include anything new in substance, but it did set a slightly different tone, especially with this right wing leader’s reference to the problems resulting from Israelis occupying another people (this new tone falls short of significant change since he did not refer to the problems of controlling another people’s land).

From a Palestinian perspective there is less excitement about the coalition than there may be from an Israeli perspective. One reason is the previous experience of such a Sharon-led coalition, which did not mark any serious change in the positions and practices of Sharon’s leadership. Indeed, the previous coalition government including Sharon and Labor leader Shimon Peres was really a continuity of the Likud government, only with a better PR image because of Peres’ high international standing.

The coalition comes at a relatively significant time, a time of a possible unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli army and settlers from a few settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank. This plan, if implemented as declared, is not going to move things forward. According to the World Bank report published last month, it will rather lead to further decline in economic indicators, including income, growth and unemployment.

The plan can, however, be developed in a way that can serve the cause of peace if it is put into a more comprehensive context and is no longer implemented unilaterally. For that to happen it would need to include three additional components. 1) The withdrawal from Gaza should happen in parallel with a full cessation of all settlement activities in the West Bank. 2) There should be a full end to the occupation in Gaza including ending Israeli control over borders and allowing the free movement of goods and people through the sea and airport. 3) Free movement between and inside the West Bank and Gaza must be allowed.

Add these three elements to the plan and the overall situation can improve politically, economically and security-wise, and might even prepare the ground for a resumption of negotiations.

If the Labor party, after joining the government, is not able to develop this unilateral plan in the direction indicated above, then Labor’s inclusion in the coalition will be a harmful development because it will simply serve to strengthen the current Israeli leadership that is responsible for getting us into the mess we are in.

This is a significant juncture in the history of the conflict, and many people see opportunities to move ahead. But an increase in the international efforts by the Quartet countries and on the basis of the roadmap will be timely and useful. The first phase of the roadmap provides the comprehensive package that is necessary to move things forward because it includes political components, such as stopping settlement expansions; economic components, such as increasing foreign aid and removing Israeli-imposed obstacles to economic recovery in the Palestinian territories; and finally security components, a commitment by both Israelis and Palestinians to simultaneously stop acts of violence against each other.