It all depends on the leaders

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The "Athens Plan", the joint Israeli-Palestinian program entitled "Disengagement toward re-engagement" that is being published for the first time by bitterlemons, is such an obviously constructive idea that it is painful. If only the two sides could work together on the security and economic aspects of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, its chances of success would be radically improved and, more importantly, the plan would be far more likely to serve as a positive precedent for moving from conflict to constructive separation and ultimately to a successful two state solution.
A week ago I would have written in this space that, due to the absence of positive leadership, the plan had little chance of being implemented. After all, neither Sharon nor PLO leader Yasser Arafat nor US President George W. Bush has a realistic strategy for peace–in the absence of which disengagement is liable to be truly unilateral. An Israeli pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank may be a positive step from the standpoint of Israel’s need to remain a Jewish and a democratic state, i.e., from the demographic standpoint, and insofar as it keeps the two-state solution alive. But it will only serve as a positive precedent for further Israeli withdrawals or as a point of departure for a return to peace negotiations if the Palestinian side takes advantage of Israel’s disengagement to restore order and security, thereby enabling the international community to begin rebuilding the Gazan economy. That’s what the Athens Plan is all about.

Now we confront the possibility that the negative leadership paradigm described above will be undergoing radical change. In the Palestinian camp we don’t yet know Arafat’s fate, but it is certainly possible that the era of his leadership is ending, and one can at least hope that the successor regime in Ramallah will better appreciate the opportunity presented by disengagement as well as the relevancy of the actions, described in the Athens Plan, that need to be taken in order for Palestinians to benefit from Israel’s departure.

In the United States, a Kerry presidency or even a second term Bush presidency presents an opportunity for the administration to deal more constructively and more energetically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only in Israel was it made clear last week that no leadership change is about to take place, as Ariel Sharon rebuffed the right wing challenge to his initiative to leave the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

Sharon’s stubborn commitment to disengagement is striking. But he is invoking his plan at least in part because he does not want, indeed, does not believe in, a peace process with the Palestinians. And his intentions regarding the rest of the West Bank remain murky, to say the least, thereby sparking endless conspiracy theories among Palestinians. Nevertheless, his disengagement plan is potentially good for Israel and good for Palestine.

If Sharon were soon to be confronted by a new, more moderate and rational Palestinian leadership and a more determined US administration, he would be hard put to rebuff pressures at least to enter into some sort of disengagement-related dialogue. This in turn would seriously improve the domestic Israeli political chances that disengagement would actually be carried out, insofar as some of the Israeli disengagement skeptics, even on the right, object precisely to the absence of a partner rather than to leaving Gaza. The Athens Plan is a timely and suitable agenda for such a dialogue. The Palestinians who wrote it evidently understand that disengagement is more an opportunity than a conspiracy.

True, this is a best-case scenario. The situation in both Palestine and Washington might not play out this way. Arafat could recover and return, or Palestine could deteriorate into Somalia-like chaos, or Hamas or Palestinian warlords could launch a series of coups, or the successor regime in Ramallah could be too weak to act decisively–the list of potential negative scenarios is endless. And the next US administration might remain so preoccupied with Iraq and perhaps Iran that it will refuse to exercise pressure or offer incentives to either side in order to make good on disengagement.

But the fact that six distinguished Israelis and five distinguished Palestinians sat down and worked out a comprehensive agenda for exploiting disengagement in order to implement Israeli-Palestinian reengagement, offers at least a grain of hope that we can now begin moving in the right direction.

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