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What Israel Still Must Do

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Everyone knows what must be done if there is to be a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel's forceful response to rocket attacks from Gaza does not change that.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently spelled out what his country must do. This week, he is sending Israel's forces into what he called "long, painful and difficult" fighting in Gaza. This necessary action does not alter the truths he spoke in an interview last September with the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

"We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the (occupied) territories," Olmert said. "Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage (of territory elsewhere) -- without this, there will be no peace."

And would that withdrawal include parts of Jerusalem? "Including Jerusalem," he said, noting that if Israelis continued control of all Jerusalem, they would have to absorb another 270,000 Arabs into their country.

It took awhile for Olmert to get here.

"I was the first person who wanted to maintain Israeli control over the entire city," said Olmert, who left the right-wing Likud Party in support of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's removal of settlers from Gaza in 2005.

"I confess," he went on. "I'm not trying to retroactively justify what I've done for the past 35 years. For a significant portion of those years I wasn't ready to contemplate the depth of this reality."

There's no serious debate in Israel on the need to stop the rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. And there's no taking baby steps with Hamas, officially dedicated to Israel's destruction.

The botched 2006 incursion into Lebanon against Hezbollah left Israel looking vulnerable. Israelis want to repair that perception.

The timing of this matters. Israel holds elections in February. Her voters are rattled and angry at the brazen missile launches from Gaza. Oil always becomes an issue in Mideast conflicts, but today's depressed world economy would temper any resulting spikes in its price.

Barack Obama, as president-elect, is spared until Jan. 20 from wading into the swamps of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. He can conveniently remind the public that there's only one president at a time, and it's not yet him.

That is a benefit for all concerned. Obama promises a new and welcome American engagement with the Muslim world. It's best that he not be forced to weigh in on Israel's inevitable reaction to the provocation from Gaza. He needs to retain his political capital. Egypt and other Sunni Arab states may detest Hamas and Hezbollah as arms of Shiite Iran, but their people are being stirred by images of the destruction.

Was it only last week that we enjoyed those happy Christmas pictures from Bethlehem? An improved economy and retreat by Israeli soldiers from West Bank cities helped fill Bethlehem's hotels for the celebration.

Hamas' foe, the Palestinian Authority, governs the West Bank, and while cooperation with Israel can be politically dicey, it has led to economic growth and cuts in unemployment. Tourism is up sharply in Jericho, also. And Nablus, the site of harsh Israeli security lockdowns, has just opened a shiny mall. Today Palestinians don't have to enter Israel for jobs.

But peace and occupation cannot coexist for long. A political solution must give Palestinians full control of their space and an approximate return to the borders before the 1967 war. For every square foot they don't get back, they get another square foot from somewhere in Israel.

That ultimately has to be the deal, and the violent confrontation in Gaza changes none of it.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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