The separation imperative

Ending our rule in the territories and ceasing to manage the lives of millions of Palestinians is an existential Israeli interest. In less than a decade the Palestinians will constitute the majority of the population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. In other words, unless Israel divests itself of rule in Judea-Samaria and the Gaza Strip as far as possible, though not necessarily in the form of an agreement, it will with its own hands put an end to the Jewish state and bring into a binational state into existence.

The termination of our presence in the territories and the establishment of peace will not "happen" by themselves. Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians are working indefatigably to find a way out of the cycle of bloodshed. The ideas put forward by President Clinton in December 2000 were the result of thousands of hours of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. They were accepted by the government of Israel; they were accepted very tardily, and implicitly, by the Palestinian leadership as well.

The other initiatives, including the "People's Voice" initiative of Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, are "private," in the sense that they do not reflect an official position of the Israeli government. Not that there is anything wrong with that. On the contrary: Every such effort influences public opinion - on both sides - and instills hope by the very fact of positing an alternative.

Yossi Beilin, Yasser Abed Rabbo and their partners in the Geneva initiative went about their formulation of an agreement in the same way. Each of us should be grateful for the determination to propose a possible model for a permanent solution amid the cycle of blood and the atrocities of Palestinian terrorism. Unfortunately, though, the model is not a good one. The debate over the content has not yet begun, but there is definitely place to conduct such a debate, and very soon.

The government of Israel is a signatory to several agreements with the Palestinians. They are still in force. Israel, the Palestinians, the United States, Russia and the European Union accepted the road map as an agreed framework for the political process. There is no reason to replace the totality of the existing agreements with the Geneva document. The proper point of departure for the negotiations on a permanent agreement is a combination of the Clinton ideas and the draft agreement that the sides discussed between 1999 and 2001, together with the road map. Together, these three documents constitute a semi-official basis, which is stable and objective, for ensuring the long-term interests of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, without depriving the other side.

At the same time, Israel must not leave its future in the hands of others - we must take an initiative by ourselves and act to put a stop to the deteriorating situation. Concurrent with the effort to engage in a dialogue with the aim of achieving a permanent solution through negotiations, we must deploy for an Israeli-initiated separation from the Palestinian people to a provisional border line, first in the Gaza Strip, and execute the move. Within defensible borders we will be able to cope with the economic and social crisis and with the decline in the quality of government, and this is the only way we will be able to bring about an end to the bloody conflict in the Middle East. We must define our borders by ourselves and place an iron wall against the demographic threat.

A responsible government cannot make Israel's future conditional solely on the existence of a genuine Palestinian partner to sign and implement agreements. The government must strive to attain political agreements through negotiations, but at the same time, it must also deploy for Israel's unilateral separation from the Palestinians. Israel must withdraw from Gaza immediately, using that as a model from which lessons will be drawn and applied in the next stage: in Judea-Samaria. The test of the present government lies in truly seeing the political process through, while at the same time preparing for unilateral separation in order to reverse the demographic trend.

The government must remove us from the Gaza Strip because our protracted presence there is adversely affecting national security and is totally pointless. There are several plans for separation, some of them detailed and judicious. The effort needs to be placed on negotiations, on the one hand, and, on the other, on implementing the separation, and not necessarily on drawing up new plans.

The hour is ripe for this because more and more sane Israelis, from the right and the left, understand the importance of a democratic state with a Jewish majority, and the danger that threatens the very existence of such a state.

Attorney and Col. (res.) Gilead Sher was chief of the Prime Minister's Bureau and a senior negotiator with the Palestinians from 1999 to 2001.

The Article was published in Haaretz, November 21, 2003