Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why Are We Surprised?

By ROGER COHEN
Op-Ed Columnist
International Herald Tribune
June 20, 2007

NEW YORK

With all the sudden talk of a "West Bank first" strategy, embracing the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and consigning Hamas-dominated Gaza to the dogs, it is easy enough to forget that we are just over two years down the road from a "Gaza first" approach that had the Bush Administration excited.

To reacquaint myself with this reality, I contacted James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who, in April of 2005, was appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement.

It was critical, Rice said at the time, to "seize the moment" of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza because "we have an opportunity right now to help Israelis and Palestinians build trust with one another and achieve the peace and security they both desire."

Fine words that proved as consequential as yesterday's newspapers. Wolfensohn, a seasoned negotiator, tried. He tried to the point of raising almost $15 million - including $10 million from a single American donor - to acquire greenhouses Israeli settlers were abandoning in the summer of 2005.

"We even gave them the greenhouses!" is now a refrain from the Israeli government in arguing that the "test case" of Gaza has failed, leading not to the democratic embryo of a Palestinian state but to a nest of Hamas-led terror.

The refrain overlooks Wolfensohn's role and the cash paid. More important, it overlooks the fact that the greenhouses looked set to become a profitable Gaza industry before Israel shut the border and the produce rotted.

"Once it was clear the business was viable, threats stopped and the community took tremendous pride in growing flowers, fruits and vegetables for export to Israel," Wolfensohn told me.

"The absolute tragedy was that within months of the commencement of that activity, issues of security at the border, some proven, some not, led to the border being sealed and everything getting wasted," he added.

"There is one inevitable truth in the Middle East: Unless you provide economic activity to young people who are 70 percent of the population, you will have conflict. They will shoot the people they blame and in the end they will shoot each other."

Of course, Hamas rose in Gaza. It won the election in early 2006 that the West had called for. That was problematic. Hamas has been deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. It has rejected calls to recognize Israel, forswear all violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian accords.

But "seizing the moment," as Rice said, involves risk. It is inconceivable without some sort of good-faith engagement. There was no way that Gaza, a slither of impoverished territory crammed with 1.3 million Palestinians, driven into the ground by corrupt Fatah governance, was going to show Swiss moderation in its first election.

To believe otherwise is to inhabit an imaginary Middle East - a transnational Green Zone - and it is not in a world of the imagination that anything is going to get solved. Hamas, right now, represents a very large number of Palestinians, like it or not. "West Bank first" will not change that.

Wolfensohn, no dreamer, said: "I can only tell you that the Israeli closing of the Gaza borders was made with less consideration of the impact than needed. Aside from the military analysis, you have to consider the impact on a society, because social dislocation leads to anger and violence."

After a year in the job, marginalized, he slipped away. "The view on the American and Israeli side was that you could not trust the Palestinians, and the result was not to build more economic activity, but to build more barriers," Wolfensohn said. "And I personally did not think that was the way forward."

Nor do I. "Gaza first" imploded because Gaza was cut off. Intra-Palestinian mayhem ensued. Hamas has terrorist elements. But it remains more a Palestinian national than a global jihadist movement. There are members of Hamas with whom dialogue is possible. To make peace you have to get the enemy to the table.

American and European money is now being rushed to Abbas and his emergency government in the West Bank. President George W. Bush, meeting this week with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, called Abbas the "president of all the Palestinians."

What independent Palestinian state Abbas could ever one day govern is another matter. Unless the real world is addressed, "Gaza first" and now "West Bank first" will one day give way to "Ramallah first" as putative Palestine perishes.

"This has been a terrible example for me of hope being turned into real tragedy," Wolfensohn said.

Email: rocohen@nytimes.com

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