Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, due to begin in earnest this week, is a historic moment. What it is not, however, is part of a coherent plan designed to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, the open wound at the heart of the Middle East crisis. The challenge for the international community, and principally for the US, is to convert this step forward in decolonisation into a process pointing towards peace. There are precious few signs that is happening or likely to happen.
On August 3, for example, James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president now energetically working to make a success of the Gaza pull-out as a special international envoy, said the two sides "are addressing all the issues they would need to address in a final settlement". In fact, they are addressing none of those issues - Jerusalem, refugees, final borders, the future of the illegal settlements - and that is very much by Israeli design.
'Mr Sharon has never wavered in his precisely mapped-out strategy to expand Israel’s borders to take in all Jerusalem and nearly half the West Bank'
As Dov Weisglass, senior aide to Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, pointed out last October, the Gaza plan "supplies the formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians". Ten days ago he said the US was prepared to back Israel’s keeping three-quarters of its settlers in the West Bank, as well as a similar number in occupied east Jerusalem. Mr Sharon made much the same point in Paris last month and, of course, possesses a letter signed by President George W. Bush and drafted by Mr Weisglass that essentially recognises Israel’s hold over the big blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Indeed, while the world’s eyes are on Gaza and the drama of uprooting the 8,000 Israelis who are there, surrounded by 1.3m Palestinians, Mr Sharon’s government is busily expanding the colonisation of the West Bank, even building a wall through Jerusalem that will push another 50,000 Palestinians outside the city boundaries. For Mr Sharon has never wavered in his precisely mapped-out strategy to expand Israel’s borders to take in all Jerusalem and nearly half the West Bank. As the Palestinians get hemmed in to an ever-shrinking share of the occupied territories, Mr Sharon’s goal of keeping the geography rather than the demography appears to be succeeding.
Yet it is an illusion for Israelis to imagine that will deliver the security they yearn for. Only justice for the Palestinians will do that. That is why the Gaza opportunity must be seized.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, will be able to govern only if he can demonstrate that his peaceful path to statehood works. The US and its European allies must therefore insist to Israel that its security requires a Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Any attempt to squeeze the Palestinians into Gaza and disconnected cantons is a recipe for another generation of bitter struggle and regional destabilisation the world cannot afford.