The net outcome of the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will only be determined in its aftermath and will depend on its consequences within the Palestinian and Israeli camps. It will also depend on what the next step in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is going to be.
There are two possible scenarios. The first scenario sees Israel following its unilateral plan in Gaza with further unilateral steps in the West Bank of the kind we are already witnessing, whereby the wall continues being built and settlements continue expanding. In this case, there will be no winners. Both sides will lose the opportunity to renew the peace process and implement the roadmap. These are crucial to replacing violence with negotiations and allowing the two sides the chance to achieve their respective objectives, without doing so at the expense of the legitimate rights of the other side.
The other scenario sees the international community, led by the US through the Quartet, begin to fulfill its promises, invest the necessary political will, and apply the necessary political pressure to invite the two parties back to the negotiations to ensure the implementation of the roadmap.
In parallel with the above scenarios, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has two options. The first is to immediately compensate for the Gaza withdrawal by building more settlements in the West Bank. This will create a confrontation with the Palestinian side. If he chooses this path, both Palestinians and Israelis will lose out to the extremist minorities on both sides, who will be provided with a suitable playground to carry on with their anti-peace activities.
Sharon’s second option is to use the current atmosphere of relative calm to replace his unilateral approach with bilateral negotiations that will build positively on the Gaza withdrawal. This will strengthen those arguing for a peaceful resolution to the conflict on both sides. A return to fruitful negotiations is the only way to create a win-win situation by reducing the room for maneuver of extremists and violent parties.
The signals emanating from the Israeli government so far are not hopeful. New tenders for settlements, the continued building of the wall dipping deeper and deeper into occupied Palestinian territory, and deadly Israeli military incursions, only serve to strengthen the impression that Sharon has chosen the first path.
The time is right for a third party initiative that will encourage and strengthen both sides to take the right path after Gaza. After all, this was what the Quartet and other leading players in the international community promised the Palestinian side would happen, when working to convince them of the importance of the Gaza withdrawal taking place smoothly. There can be no winners and losers in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general and after the Gaza disengagement in particular. There can only be winners or losers. A just and negotiated peace is the only way to ensure that both sides become winners. Unilateralism, obliviousness to international law, and a continued hands-off approach from the international community will see us all lose.