Sharon and Bush have handed the Palestinians a mother lode of opportunities

Few would call the Gaza Strip the land of opportunity, nor would any Palestinian consider Ariel Sharon his benefactor. But they may have to reconsider in the wake of last week’s White House summit where President Bush endorsed Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan.

Yasser Arafat may be the bete noire of both leaders, but they handed him a golden opportunity — if he’s smart enough to take advantage of it.

Most Palestinians feel about Sharon the way most Israelis feel about Arafat, but unlike the Duke of Ramallah, Sharon is offering the Palestinians an important opportunity to improve their lives and establish their own state. But don’t misunderstand Sharon’s motives; he decided to get out of Gaza purely for Israel’s benefit, and any advantages accruing to the Palestinians — and there are many — are coincidental.

The Palestinians were outraged that decisions affecting their fate were made in Washington, and they weren’t invited. That’s understandable, but their exclusion was unavoidable for Bush and Sharon, who are convinced there is no Palestinian partner with whom they can negotiate. They believe, with much justification and experience, that Arafat is neither capable nor willing to negotiate seriously, so extraordinary measures are called for.

Nonetheless, it was a pretty good week for Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, although they’d be loathe to admit it publicly.

The Washington meetings created “an opening that was inconceivable six months ago,” said Middle East Institute scholar Paul Scham. Palestinian anger over being excluded is intense, but “if they recognize how much is riding on this, it may work.”

Sharon and Bush handed the Palestinians a mother lode of opportunities.

Depending on how Arafat plays it out, this could be the most important breakthrough in the peace process since the Oslo accords a decade ago, and it came from an arch critic of Oslo.

Arafat and the Palestinian Authority will get Gaza free, including the multibillion-dollar Israeli-built infrastructure, without having to make a single concession, not even a promise to stop using Gaza as a base for launching terror or rocket attacks.

The Israeli right was deeply split over Sharon’s Gaza proposal, with the far right and the settler movement suffering a stinging defeat that may marginalize them and see them replaced in the government by the pro-peace Labor party.

Sharon agreed to unilaterally dismantle every settlement in Gaza and remove all the settlers, plus a few in the West Bank, just as Palestinians have demanded.

The Gaza disengagement was endorsed — though half-heartedly in some instances — by the Europeans, Russians and even some Arabs, although all rejected the rest of the Bush-Sharon agreements.

The Europeans and others have pledged an infusion of millions of dollars for rebuilding Gaza and creating jobs, though only time will tell if they deliver the money.

Israel removed the only Palestinian leader whose popularity rivaled Arafat’s — Hamas chief Abdel Aziz Rantissi, whose replacement wants to be anonymous.

Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s main rival for power in Gaza, has been steadily weakened by Israel, its leadership killed or in hiding.

After three years of intifada, the comatose peace process just got a new lease on life; the stalemate has been broken and a new opening created, although it remains to be seen whether either side can or will take advantage of it.

Paul Scham, the MEI scholar, said if the Palestinians can move beyond their hurt pride and show that they can establish the rule of law and make Gaza work politically and economically, the moderates can say they are ready to govern the West Bank as well and challenge Israel to return to the negotiating table.

But for Gaza to work, he added, “they have to leave Arafat in Ramallah because his governing style is disastrous.” Arafat will want to stay behind for other reasons as well: to pursue claims to the West Bank and for fear Israel won’t let him return.

Scham advises paying more attention to what Palestinians do than what they say, and whether they look beyond the emotions of the hour to realize how much is riding on this historic opportunity for self-government.

“The rhetoric will be very anti-Israel because they won’t easily forget what happened this week,” he said. “The question is whether the facts they create on the ground will be better than their rhetoric.”

But not all Palestinians will see Israel’s disengagement from Gaza as an opportunity to bring order out of chaos; to some it may validate the chaos.

The hard-liners and those who reject the very existence of a Jewish state may see Sharon’s decision as proof that violence pays. They can be expected to say, “See, negotiations with the Zionists got you nowhere, but armed struggle has driven them out of Gaza, just as our Hezbollah brethren drove them out of Lebanon.”

Which voices Palestinians listen to will determine their future.

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, said the Gaza evacuation presents Palestinians with a “tremendous opportunity” to show that they can build a peaceful democracy, fight terror and deal with the needs of their own people.

The Gaza plan is also an opportunity for the Europeans and Arab states to show they have more to offer than sniping at Washington and Jerusalem, and use their wealth and influence to help the Palestinians build a peaceful and prosperous mini-state that will lead to a broader peace and a full-fledged state.

Much will also depend on how Sharon follows through on his dramatic initiative. Will he work to make it succeed for both sides? Will he see a stable, prosperous Gaza as good for Israel, or will he want it to fail and prove the Palestinians can’t build and run a responsible, democratic government?

But most of all it is up to the Palestinians themselves to disprove Abba Eban’s famous dictum about missed opportunities.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who was formerly chief legislative lobbyist for AIPAC.


Edit: The good and bad of it all

Views: Bush and Sharon met — so what did Israel gain?

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.