After Gaza: Back to Sanity?
The best-case scenario is that the disengagement will lead to a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians toward a final-status agreement. The Palestinians are calling for this, but it's highly unlikely that Sharon will be ready to respond. The Israeli body politic is in turmoil. The Israeli right, including members of his own party, are accusing Sharon of "crimes against humanity" (not because of the Lebanon War, but because he dared to remove Jewish settlers from Gaza!), and they vow to send him to the dustbin of history. The center-left, which represents the majority Israeli position according to the polls and is in favor of major territorial compromise and a two-state solution, is disorganized. Israel is headed toward elections in the foreseeable future, and the focus will be on a mix of political and socioeconomic questions.
The Palestinians are also headed toward elections, to be held in January 2006. If they demonstrate that they can make a success out of Gaza, and can continue the constructive unity they demonstrated during the course of the disengagement process, the Palestinians could have a significant impact on the outcome of the Israeli elections.
The Palestinians are afraid that Sharon has made a trade of Gaza in exchange for a maximum amount of settlements and land in the West Bank, which would undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. It is a given that if they don't see hope for a resumption of the political process on the horizon, and concrete confidence-building steps such as the removal of "illegal outposts," the freezing of settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, greater freedom of movement and a major release of prisoners, the Palestinians will return to what they call armed struggle and the Israelis call terrorism.
The other factor in the equation is the international community, first and foremost the United States. Given the Bush Administration's record and philosophy, it's hard to imagine it playing the role of constructive facilitator along the lines of Jimmy Carter at Camp David I in 1978, the Bush (Sr.)-Baker role in convening the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Clinton Administration's attempt at Camp David II in the summer of 2000. But that is exactly what is needed, since Europe doesn't have the clout to go it alone. The international community, led by the United States, has to signal to both the Israelis and the Palestinians that the Gaza disengagement must be the first step toward a resumption of a meaningful political process. The infrastructure for progress is there, in the form of the Oslo Accords and the international Middle East road map. All that's needed is the political will to use them.
Otherwise, we will begin the steep decline toward another bloody round of Israeli-Palestinian warfare, with thousands of unnecessary casualties on both sides. In the worst-case scenario, this might be accompanied by apocalyptic visions of a Palestinian "mega-terror" attack, which would produce a brutal Israeli response, or an extremist Israeli attack against the Muslim holy sites on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, which could create an Armageddon-like war between the Islamic world, Israel and the West.