Flagship project

It has always been difficult for the Palestinian national movement to advocate a safe passage route between Gaza and the West Bank. Not only is safe passage extremely problematic for Israeli security and territorial sovereignty, but it was also, inexplicably, left out of the original Palestinian "narrative" of final status rights. Yet today, safe passage is probably the single most important conceivable project for ensuring a genuine solution of two viable states. Hence the international community should concentrate all its efforts on this endeavor, which can be packaged so as to be as attractive to Israel as it is vital for Palestine.

When the PLO resolved in Algiers in 1988 to adopt a two state solution, it "compromised", from its standpoint, by accepting the 1967 lines. Ever since, in the course of a variety of Oslo negotiating frameworks, it has insisted with impressive determination and dedication that final status borders must approximate those of 1967, and that any land swaps be symmetrical in size so as to maintain the sanctity of the 23 percent of mandatory Palestine the PLO undertook to accept for its state. Nowhere has this basic narrative of a solution included a safe land link between the two parts of pre-67 Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank. Hence, even when the government of Ehud Barak began to come around, in 2000, to the principle of the 1967 lines (including land swaps for the settlement blocs), safe passage remained a separate topic for bargaining, or was included in Israel’s land swap calculations.

At the conceptual level of Palestinian sovereignty, this represents a monumental failure on the part of the PLO leadership. Were an Israeli leader to agree to all Palestinian territorial "narrative" demands and undertake to withdraw from every last settlement right up to the 1967 green line, including in Jerusalem, but refuse to accept the principle of safe passage, Palestine would be doomed as a state because of the separation of Gaza from the West Bank.

Indeed, even with a safe passage route, a Palestinian state will be hard put to function in a unified manner. It is only the small distance–approximately 42 km–that separates the two land units that, if properly bridged with transportation and infrastructure links (and together, of course, with close historical, linguistic and national links), holds out the hope that a united Palestinian state will not suffer the geo-strategic fate of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Even the emphatic Palestinian insistence today that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza be accompanied by construction of a safe passage route reflects a previous lack of clear Palestinian thinking on this issue. Why wasn’t the PLO this insistent in the course of the past ten years? Why has it required the prospect of Gazan semi-independence, economically (a different customs regime) and politically (Hamas rule?) for Palestinian leaders to start worrying about national unity? Somewhere there lurks the suspicion that the disdain for Gazans displayed by many West Bankers has contributed to this neglect.

Regardless of the mistakes the PLO has made, Israel retains a vital interest in a successful safe passage regime. The logic is simple: West Bank-Gazan geo-political unity is a key to the success of a Palestinian state, and a successful Palestinian state is a key both to Israel’s capacity to remain both Jewish and democratic, and to the chances for long term peaceful coexistence with the Arab and Muslim worlds. In contrast, a separate Gazan basket-case mini-state on Israel’s doorstep is a sure recipe for political, demographic and ultimately military disaster for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Moreover, to be perfectly frank, safe passage is also a guarantee of Israel’s long-term capacity to threaten a Palestinian state with instant and devastating retaliation if it ever poses a serious threat to Israel. Once the land link is up and functioning and is contributing to Palestinian prosperity, and no matter how semi-sovereign or ex-territorial its status, Israel’s ability to sever it with two tanks and a platoon of soldiers is obvious to everyone. Safe passage means that, geo-strategically, Israel will always retain a potential grip on the Palestinian jugular. All in all, PM Sharon’s insistence right now on discussing only the "safe passage" of convoys of trucks reflects real strategic shortsightedness.

Israel, Palestine, and the international community have every interest in facilitating safe passage. Precisely because a sunken road, or a road on stilts, will take ten years to plan, approve, and build, all sides have an interest in starting on the project immediately. It should be the starting point for the Rand Corporation’s dramatic "arc" plan, not only because it ensures unity, but because it bypasses the regional jealousies and imbalances that would inevitably accompany the laying of railroad tracks in Gaza or the building of a superhighway in the West Bank. And because it will be built in Israel it will provide Israelis with welcome investment and employment input.

From the standpoint of the Bush administration, concentrating on a real safe passage solution now, irrespective of the status of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would send a clear message of long-term commitment to a two-state solution without endangering anyone’s security in the short term. This should be Mr. Wolfensohn’s flagship project!