Three important precedents

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The Gaza crossings agreement ostensibly deals with largely technical issues: the modalities of Gaza’s border crossings. But it also embodies three extremely important precedents, all of which concern the international community, or "third parties".

First, Israel under PM Ariel Sharon has opted to remove all its personnel from a Palestinian border with the Arab world, the Gaza-Egypt crossing at Rafah. This is particularly remarkable when we recall that the most liberal Israeli-Palestinian peace plan produced thus far, the Geneva accord (which in its border arrangements is based on the January 2001 Taba negotiations and the Clinton plan), calls for a three-year ongoing Israeli security presence at Rafah within the framework of a genuine peace agreement. Now Israel, without making peace, has abandoned that demand in favor of a third party presence.

True, goods imported to Palestine and entry of non-Palestinians will still be channeled through Israel, at Kerem Shalom. But this reflects at least in part the Palestinian economic requirement that the Israeli-Palestinian customs envelope remain in place. From the security standpoint, Sharon has agreed to a unique precedent, one that is likely to determine the nature of arrangements at the Jordan River bridges as well, if and when Israel withdraws from all or even part of the Jordan Valley.

The second precedent concerns the identity of the third party that Israel has agreed should represent its security interests at Rafah: the European Union. This is the first time an Israeli government has agreed to trust the EU with an operational role in monitoring an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Finally the EU is "playing" instead of "paying". If the 70 EU monitors at Rafah succeed in training Palestinian border control personnel and representing Israel’s security needs, this will establish a basis of confidence for an expanded European political/security role in the future.

The breakthrough to agreement also witnessed the debut of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a forceful mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. In a larger sense, this was the first time in five years that the Bush administration did some effective arm-twisting at the highest level between Israelis and Arabs, persuading Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop some of their more stubborn demands and allow an agreement to emerge. Rice devoted only two days to the task, yet the inevitable comparison is to the heady days when her predecessors in Republican administrations, Henry Kissinger and James Baker, shuttled back and forth for weeks and months between Jerusalem and Arab capitals and invoked the authority of the American president in order to wring separation of forces, peace and summit agreements from suspicious Israeli, Syrian and Egyptian leaders.

George W. Bush is a far more reluctant Arab-Israel peacemaker than were Nixon or Bush senior. He has a very different order of priorities in the Middle East, beginning with Iraq and Iran. Still, hopefully, Rice will be encouraged by this modest first successful foray into peacemaking and will try her hand again after Israeli and Palestinian elections, if and when the opportunity for another breakthrough presents itself. In the words of Quartet economic facilitator James Wolfensohn, who only a day before Rice’s arrival was so frustrated he threatened to quit: "to push [the agreement] over the edge, one needs not envoys [like myself] but secretaries of state."

Thus the Gaza crossings agreement represents a good start, however brief and delayed, toward investing the right level of third party energies in Israeli-Palestinian relations. What that level will be in the coming years will depend on the nature of the governments in Jerusalem and Ramallah and their preference for negotiations, unilateralism or stalemate. The Gaza pullout, ostensibly a completely unilateral act, has demonstrated third party involvement at its best. Note, too, that it was preceded by an unprecedented Israeli-Egyptian agreement regarding the Gaza-Sinai border that bodes well for future security cooperation between Israel and its neighbors.

But all of this is hardly a sign that peace is around the corner. The United States and the European Union cannot impose peace on a skeptical and reluctant Israeli leader like Sharon or a willing but weak leader like Abbas. A third party can do only so much in the absence of committed and effective local leadership.

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