Gaza symbols and substance

June 9, 2004

Hopes that an Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip could kick-start the Mideast peace process may be eroded by what one commentator called the "salami effect." Successive compromises keep slicing it thinner and thinner until there's hardly any meat left.

The plan approved Sunday by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet may end up satisfying neither the majority of Israelis nor Palestinians. It sets a 2005 withdrawal date from Gaza, but the timetables for action remain fuzzy. The dates for the first of four phases for evacuation of settlements will not be decided for nine months.

Yet Sharon took a great political risk to get even that approved. He fired two Cabinet ministers who opposed the plan. Defections from his governing coalition over the last two days have left him two votes short of a majority in the Knesset, though the Labor Party says it will not join a vote to bring down the government.

Sharon grandly announced after the Cabinet vote that "disengagement has begun." Having taken risks to push the compromise through, he can be forgiven a little hyperbole. Indeed, he deserves a good deal of credit for getting even so much as a statement of principle that Israel plans to leave Gaza by next year.

Whether the vote on Sunday becomes more than symbolism will depend on Sharon negotiating his way to a firm date for a Gaza pullout, on Israeli public support for such a move, on a constructive response from the Palestinian camp, on cooperation from Arab neighbors and on a firm nudge from the U.S.

There are some hopeful signs that key players in the region will build on this vote. Israel and Egypt have begun high-level negotiations to beef up Egypt's military presence along the southern border of Gaza and supply Egyptian police trainers to help create a Palestinian police force. Jordan also may provide some police help in the northern part of the West Bank. Sharon's openness to Arab security assistance is a radical and welcome change for him.

Eventually the Palestinians will have to realize that Sharon fully intends to keep moving toward Israeli security and the boundaries of a Palestinian state--with or without them. The Cabinet vote on Gaza and the ongoing work on Israel's security fence, among other measures, should make that clear.

The Gaza agreement may have been sliced so thin as to render it meaningless. But there has been precious little else happening in the Middle East peace process to engender a sense of optimism. If Israelis and Palestinians find a way to build on this vote, it just might turn into something of substance.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune