The meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) could be the first between the leader of a sovereign state and the leader of a soon-to-be-sovereign state. With not too big an effort, the two figures could agree that a free Gaza Strip is the "Palestinian state with temporary borders" that is proposed in phase two of the roadmap. With less violence on the Palestinian side and more trust from Israel, one could expect the two to emerge from their meeting with a work plan and timetable for ending the Israeli occupation in the remainder of the territories.
But under present conditions, any discussion of the heavy final status issues is destined to fail, thereby again embarrassing the peace camp on both sides. Israeli and Palestinian public opinion concerning solutions for issues like the holy places in Jerusalem and refugee right of return will eventually be reformulated in accordance with the degree of success registered by the Gaza disengagement project. Hence the two parties’ central objective for now must be to stabilize the situation inside the Strip and prevent the power struggle that is going on there from overflowing into the West Bank.
Following the IDF’s withdrawal from the confines of Gaza, the Palestinians are perceived as bearing exclusive responsibility for law and order there. Hence the Israeli public is watching with concern the bloody battles taking place in Gaza between rival factions. These events hardly encourage Israelis to place the fate of the West Bank and its environs in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen must present Sharon with convincing proof that the PA has maintained its commitment under phase one of the roadmap to unite all Palestinian security organizations into three services that report to a strong minister of interior. Here it is important to recall that the roadmap does not oblige the PA at this stage to collect all illegal weaponry and to complete the dismantling of the entire terrorist infrastructure–only to begin now to take these steps.
Abu Mazen’s declarations against the public bearing of arms by militiamen indicate that the Palestinian leadership understands that in order for the political struggle against occupation to succeed where the violent struggle has failed, there is no alternative to the use of force against those who refuse to lay down their weapons and leave the job to the statesmen. Abu Mazen would be well advised to present a credible action plan and a list of tough steps he is taking to ensure the success of his policy of non-violent struggle.
Abu Mazen cannot deal successfully with this difficult challenge without the cooperation of Sharon, the man who continues to control the Gaza Strip from outside even after ending the Israeli presence there. The secret of success for Palestinian pragmatists over the radicals led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad lies in redefining the latter as partners rather than enemies (the government of Israel meanwhile has not yet amended its 2002 decision to define the PA as a "terrorist-supporting authority").
From here it is but a short way to holding a practical discussion not only of security issues, such as the PA’s request that Israel permit the Palestinian Ministry of Interior to purchase weapons and ammunition for its security forces and enable the transfer of police forces and even reinforcements (the Badr force from Jordan) from the West Bank to Gaza; the ammunition most critical for enabling the victory of the moderates is not bullets but public opinion. Dr. Khalil Shikaki’s opinion polls should bring Sharon to the conclusion that the Palestinian street will follow the leadership that supplies it with health care and a livelihood, provides an education and hope for a better future for its children, and brings back the brother who was jailed during the days when terrorism was in style.
Nor can we ignore Sharon’s need to consider public opinion, particularly the opinion of those in the Likud who will decide in a few months on his political future. Most party members were undoubtedly uneasy about disengagement from Gaza; now they would prefer to cut the Strip off entirely from Israel, the West Bank and the outside world. Yet turning Gaza into a large detention camp whose fate is in Israel’s hands will lead to despair–and despair will turn the street over to the extremists. Experience teaches us that for the extremists, success is measured by the number of casualties and the extent of the damage they inflict on Israel. Israeli public opinion, and particularly Likud opinion, will attribute that terrorism to the man who got Israel out of Gaza.
Accordingly, when Sharon helps Abu Mazen win the allegiance of the Palestinian public he is not doing him a favor, but rather helping himself win the allegiance of the Israeli public. That would be the ultimate criterion for the success of the meeting between the two leaders and of their ongoing relationship: to progress from a zero-sum game to a win-win situation.