Israel Must Do More for the West Bank Now

Many of us who support Israel have watched with a mixture of sadness and resignation as the Israeli army attacked militant strongholds in Gaza, killing about equal numbers of soldiers and civilians. This incursion was inevitable. The daily barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israeli towns, deliberately killing and injuring civilians, destroying homes, and completely disrupting life has increased steadily, and the range and size of rockets has increased too.

What would any other country do? The response, deemed disproportionate by many critics, was directed at armed enemies, and about fifty of them were killed. The civilian deaths were much more than regrettable–they were tragic. Of course, the fact that the terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad live and attack Israel from positions embedded among innocent civilians makes “collateral damage” inevitably greater.

No doubt this action was coordinated with Condoleeza Rice’s visit to the region over the last few days. Yesterday at a joint press conference, both she and Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni seemed subdued and cautious. Rice condemned the rockets and supported Israel’s right to defend itself while cautioning it against causing civilian casualties. Livni declared that Israel withdrew from Gaza and dismantled Jewish settlements there in 2005 because it has no desire to be there.

Meanwhile, West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas and his government had suspended peace talks with Israel in protest against the Gaza incursion—a perfectly reasonable and even pro forma response. However, as Rice announced, talks will now resume.

Also predictably and wisely in both political and strategic terms, Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced the evacuation of three or four illegal outposts to settlements in the West Bank. This is potentially very important.

Even the United States under George W. Bush has repeatedly condemned the construction of these outposts (there are twenty-six in all) and called for their elimination. The fact that this announcement comes immediately after the Gaza incursion and the Rice visit cannot be accidental. We have to hope that this is the beginning of a series of pragmatic concessions by Israel to the inevitable reality of a Palestinian state.

Also below the radar in the past few days is the announcement that the ancient and beautiful West Bank city of Jericho will soon begin to get its electricity from Jordan instead of Israel, a small but meaningful step toward Palestinian independence. This of course would not have happened without Israeli agreement, possible because Jordan has cooperated with Israel for many years.

These initial steps show that Israel accepts the two-state solution and that progress is being made, but more must be done. The rest of the illegal outposts must be eliminated soon. Aggressive investment, both private and public, in cooperation with Jordan, must be undertaken quickly to revitalize the West Bank economy and give its people hope. And some steps must be taken to ease travel restrictions and reduce the number of check-points that pepper the West Bank. I have watched them work; they are not usually inhumane but they are thoroughly humiliating and place a net of strangling restraints on Palestinian economic activity and therefore on legitimate Palestinian dreams.

Yes, easing the check-points involves risk for Israel. But the risk of missing the present opportunity for peace is much greater. Gaza will continue to fester for some time, but the leadership in the West Bank, their dispute with Hamas, and the great wish in the Bush administration for near-term progress present a window of opportunity. If Israel lets it close without real action, there is no telling what the cost may be.

One midnight in May of 2000, I sat with a group of Palestinians in beautiful Jericho, sipping syrupy coffee under a vast dome of stars while children played around us. The fathers of these children had been in Israeli jails during the first intifada, but in 2000 they were looking toward the future and hoping for peace with dignity.

Notwithstanding the second intifada, the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements, Israel’s war with Hezbollah, and the civil war in Gaza, I am sure that they still hope for nothing more or less than peace with dignity for themselves and their children, and that means independence. For its own sake as well as theirs, Israel had better start giving it to them soon.