Israeli Withdraws; What's Next for U.S.?

In the wake of Israel's historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, some American analysts argue that Washington should push for a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while others advocate a step-by-step approach.

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Now that Israel has withdrawn Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, the Quartet--that is the US, the European Union, Russia and the UN--is looking for the next step in the Middle East peace process. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The peace efforts are complicated by the fact that both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas face upcoming elections. They both face challenges: Sharon from right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu; and Abbas, from the Islamist militant group Hamas, which has been making political gains in recent months. Robert Malley is the Middle East Program director at the International Crisis Group. He says the most important thing the US can do right now is prevent negative things from happening. For the Palestinians, that means refraining from violence.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Middle East Program Director, International Crisis Group): And there's at least a fair likelihood the Palestinians are going to be tempted to move their violent actions from Gaza to the West Bank, focus on the West Bank and try to keep Gaza calm. And we know that if that happens, the likely Israeli reaction may undermine everything that's happened, including with--the positive that's happened in Gaza.

FLINTOFF: For Israel, Malley says the big negative is settlement expansion, especially around Jerusalem, and building a barrier that would encompass a large part of traditionally Arab East Jerusalem. David Makovsky is the author of a recent study on the Gaza withdrawal called Engagement Through Disengagement. He says the US should press for a return to the first phase of the Middle East road map to peace, which calls on the Palestinians to deal with terrorism and the Israelis to deal with settlements. But he also says that the Quartet should focus on making a Palestinian-ruled Gaza work.

Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY (Study Author): And if Gaza is an economic failure or a security failure, this will project itself on any chances of reviving trust between these parties that has been shattered after all these years of an intifada or terror and violence that we've witnessed since the year 2000.

FLINTOFF: Last week US envoy David Welch announced that the US was giving $50 million directly to the Palestinian Authority as part of a package of about $300 million in economic aid. Beyond economic aid and pressuring the two sides to avoid aggravating the situation, Makovsky says the US would do well to hold off on some of the issues that have proven most intractable in the past, including the final status of Jerusalem and the return of refugees.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: But we have to be aware of the political seasons, and both of these societies tend to be polarizing. But, therefore, the US could have a bridge over this period. And it's clear to do nothing just for six months--you know, in the Middle East, sometimes like riding a bicycle--if you don't keep pedaling, you fall backwards.

FLINTOFF: According to State Department officials, there's consideration being given to the idea of pedaling just enough to keep the whole process in place without lunging forward. Speaking on background, one official said a cooling-off period might give the two sides time to deal with their internal politics. Robert Malley agrees.

Mr. MALLEY: We're in a new stage, which is one in which US diplomacy probably will have to play a more modest role and where Israelis and Palestinians are going to work much more along parallel unilateral tracks. And both of those will be done with American help, but not necessarily with great American intervention or great American pressure.

FLINTOFF: In the meantime, the special envoy representing the Quartet countries, James Wolfensohn, will be heading back to Gaza to see what's left now that the Israeli settlers have gone. He'll have to assess issues as basic as the cost of clearing away the rubble left by Israel's demolition of settler houses. US officials are hoping that if an economic revitalization can get under way in Gaza, it will serve as a tangible symbol of hope that can keep the peace process moving. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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