On June 19, 2006, the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) held a round-table discussion at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem on the topic of unilateralism or bilateralism. The participants were Mazen Sinnokrot, former Minister of Economics and Commerce, an industrial engineer and one of the owners/directors of the Sinnokrot food industries; Professor Nazmi Ju'beh, university professor, and co-director Riwaq (Center for Architectural Conservation) and former negotiator; Dr. Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center for Peace and one of the architects of the Oslo and Geneva accords; and Danny Rubinstein, Haaretz commentator on Palestinian affairs and a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University. The moderator was Omar Karmi, the Jerusalem correspondent of the Jordan Times.

Omar Karmi: We are here to discuss unilateralism, the pros and cons. Let us start with what is the most current which is, of course, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan. Olmert is essentially threatening or promising, depending on whom he's talking to, to draw Israel's borders unilaterally. Could you all please briefly describe the possible consequences of this plan, should it be implemented?

Mazen Sinnokrot: Olmert came in with a program that enhanced his political campaign, and now his party is in power. He is committed to make good on his promises to his electorate. This was former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approach, and now Olmert is considering how to implement this same program.
Sharon's disengagement from Gaza was carried out relatively quietly, but there is a great difference between that and the West Bank. In Gaza, we are talking about a specific geographical area with a few gateways, more or less on the international border lines. In the West Bank, the separation wall is being built - a good part of on the Palestinian side. There is the issue of the isolation of Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and the continued building and expansion of settlements. The political regime in Palestine is also different from what was in place at the time of the Gaza disengagement.
It is going to be difficult for Olmert to repeat what was done in Gaza, and I'm not sure the different Palestinian political parties would stay quiet if he were to do so.

Danny Rubinstein: In principle, I don't like any unilateral steps. But Olmert's convergence plan is like an ultimatum. What I understand Olmert to be saying is, If we don't do this, we'll have the status quo. We'll be at a standstill and nobody will do anything. I don't agree, but according to the government it is.
Right now, they are paying lip service to talking with Abu Mazen, but everybody knows there's no room, from this government's political perspective, for any negotiations with the Palestinians. It would be like dictating to the Palestinians - negotiating about some settlement blocs, without Jerusalem.
This is not a starting point for any Palestinian. I don't think you'll find anyone in the world, besides Israel, that would accept this as a starting point for negotiations. Yet Olmert is telling us that it is the only option. We shall dismantle some settlements in the West Bank, here and there.
I have to admit, under such circumstances, I also don't have any other option. I have to accept it because it's the only way Israel will pull back from the West Bank- we don't know the exact size of the area from which we'll withdraw. According to the government's spokesman, it might even be 90 percent of the West Bank. I don't know how they measure the percentage because, without Jerusalem, without the Dead Sea, and so on, maybe it's only 60 or 70 percent. But according to Olmert's people, it's 90 percent of the West Bank.

Ron Pundak: It's important to understand that the prophets of the current disengagement, or convergence - namely, Olmert and Minister of Justice Haim Ramon - come from a different school of thought than the former policythinkers behind the Gaza disengagement. The Gaza disengagement should not at all be compared, substantially or politically, to the current idea of convergence in the West Bank.
Take Ramon as an example. He's one of the promoters of the idea. If you were to ask him whether he prefers convergence to signing and implementing the Geneva agreement, he would prefer the Geneva agreement. I won't say that Olmert is as close to this idea, although I think he is much closer to the Clinton Parameters and Geneva than Sharon or others. Olmert would also have preferred a negotiated final-status agreement. However, those two prophets of convergence came to the conclusion that it's currently impossible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. This was before Hamas, and was only intensified after Hamas was elected.
From a pragmatic point of view, as they read the situation in realpolitik terms, if there is stagnation on the one hand, and continued Israeli engagement within the West Bank - the occupation, checkpoints and seizures, etc. - or the alternative of a unilateral approach to move out of 85 or 90 percent of the territories, they conclude that the latter is better for the interests of Israel and of the Palestinians. And I must say it's very difficult to disagree.
I personally think it's a wrong attitude because it doesn't take two clusters of issues into consideration. First, I believe it is possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. It may not be a fullfledged final-status agreement, but it is possible to negotiate a process with an endgame, a continuous process with implementation on the ground of a coordinated disengagement or convergence. If it is not negotiated, it will be perceived as another Hamas power game victory.
Secondly, this doesn't take into consideration the repercussions from the point of view of the Israeli constituency. Anybody who looks at the Gaza disengagement and tries to extrapolate with regard to the West Bank doesn't understand or know what's happening on the ground.
The Israeli population in Gaza was quite homogeneous, around 5,000 very similar types of people, in a limited area that was possible to evacuate in three or four days. In the West Bank, there is a different depth of territory and a much larger population. In addition, we have four different groups of people. One group is quite similar to those in Gaza, but the other three are much more extreme, much more violent, and much likelier to create problems which could deteriorate into violence.
The first group is the most moderate of them in the Jordan Valley and south of Hebron, as well as in places like Mevo Dotan near Jenin. The second is Gush Emumim, with settlers from places like Beit El, Ofra, Eli and Shiloh - the hardcore, very ideological. Then there are the fanatics from Tapuah, Izhar and Itamar - people who will fight. The last group is even more extreme, from Hebron and Kiryat Arba, as well as others which are scattered all over.
If one claims there is no Palestinian partner, to whom are you delivering the area? And if you are only withdrawing the settlers and not the army, what have you accomplished? There will be the same friction on the ground. So I think the idea is not right, and will be very difficult, if at all possible, to implement as proposed.
Maybe the fallback will be withdrawing from some areas and presenting that as a kind of unilateral third redeployment according to Oslo - although that won't be mentioned because Oslo is not the game they're playing. Maybe it can be presented as part of a phase of the Road Map. In sum, I am not very optimistic about the possibility of this fullfledged 90-percent withdrawal from the West Bank.

Nazmi Ju'beh: I would like to reflect on the ideology and the history of the idea before analyzing the idea itself. I see unilateralism as a form of military dictate to the Palestinians resulting from the collapse of the Camp David and Taba negotiations. A widespread conviction grew among Israelis that Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians big concessions but they rejected them. Therefore, there is no Palestinian partner and the idea evolved of dictating a solution to the Palestinians.
This ideology actually dates further back. The first recognition of a Palestinian partner came in 1991 in the Madrid Conference, and led to the "Israeli mistake" of signing an agreement with the Palestinian people in 1993, the Oslo Accords. Since then, Israel's official tendencies were to minimize the role of the partner and to impose an Israeli strategy on the Palestinians.
In international relations, there is nothing called unilateralism. Either an occupier withdraws totally from occupied territories and leaves the inhabitants to their own devices, or claims are brought forward in negotiations. But to impose results unilaterally is not known in any form of agreement, and will not receive any legitimacy from the Palestinians or from the international community. Who can dare to accept the wall as a final-status or international border?
What is behind this unilateralism? After constructing the wall, the Israeli government will face a lot of problems administering Jews living in the settlements to the east of the wall away from the main settlement blocs. This will give rise to many logistical problems and security arrangements. The more sinister features of the wall will become much more obvious and tangible. Certain streets will be preserved for Palestinians and others for Jews. It will not be very pleasing for Israeli society to see their occupation converted from a military occupation to a form of apartheid.
Unilateralism is a way of saying to the Palestinians: We will leave you behind the walls. We are not interested in what will happen to you, or how many of you will starve. We'll continue to control the settlement blocs and maybe other settlements. We'll continue to have military camps spread all over the territories. We'll continue to control your skies and your borders.

Danny Rubinstein: Do you prefer that the situation remain as is?

Nazmi Ju'beh: No. The Israelis will say, We'll let you stay as you are until you're ready to sign the agreement we want you to sign. There may be some among the Palestinians who would be willing to say, We'll accept 85 percent of the West Bank; just let us improve our lives. I see this as a form of absolute political pressure on the Palestinians to drive them to accept Israel's position.
What I prefer is clear. I think a partnership is possible. I think that peace and an agreement are also possible. But I will not legitimize any unilateralism which will lead to further deterioration of the already fragmented West Bank. I do not accept unilateralism even if it leads to more evacuation in the occupied territories. We do not have to be happy about the evacuation of half of the West Bank if this leads to the suffocation of the rest of the population there.
Clearly, the Israeli government is trying to free itself from its responsibilities as an occupying power in Gaza. They would like to do the same thing the West Bank, and we have to fight very hard to stop that kind of ideology, or not to legitimize it.

Omar Karmi: Do you agree that unilateralism will never gain international legitimacy?

Danny Rubinstein: I quite understand the point of not wanting to give legitimacy to Israel's unilateralism. But if somebody comes to you and says, the alternative is that all the settlements will stay the way they are today, is that bad or good? Will this step encourage the peace camp in Israel? Will it weaken the settler movement? I think any kind of Israeli withdrawal from the territories is good.

Nazmi Ju'beh: Don't misunderstand me. I will not stop any evacuation of any settlement. I will not stand against any withdrawal. But we have to differentiate between an option and an imposition from the other side. You have to think not only about Israeli society and strengthening the Israeli peace camp, but how these steps will be received by Palestinian society and which Palestinian camp will be strengthened.

Danny Rubinstein: From the Israeli point of view, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza didn't help security at all. To the contrary: security in the area around Gaza is much worse now than it was before. Still, 50 percent - maybe more - of Israelis support the convergence, support the same step in the West Bank. Why? Because it's the first time in Israel that this kind of unilateralism attracted both the right and the left wing.
From the point of view of the right, unilateralism means that we don't care about the Palestinians. We can ignore them now. They don't exist. On the left - when we discussed it at my paper, Haaretz, and I was against it, my editor said: "After 40 years, this is the only track that has led to the dismantlement of even one settlement. Show me how to dismantle one settlement otherwise."

Omar Karmi: This particular plan is not just withdrawing from settlements. It's a political plan.

Ron Pundak: It is a political plan that is an outlet not a strategy. It's a tactical plan, a fallback rather than what this government really wants. I would say that this government has the potential of being even more moderate than Yitzhak Rabin's in 1993. People like Shimon Peres and Amir Peretz, who are definitely not champions of unilateralism, are accepting it. It's quite similar to the approach of the same people to the wall, meaning it is not part of Israel's original strategy. It developed as a reaction to a situation, rightly or wrongly, and attracted a group of people. Eventually, those who were traditionally against it gradually became not only supporters, even implementers, such as the current minister of defense.
Similarly, they look at the idea of convergence and the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank, as a kind of option B. If Israel cannot reach an agreement, then Israel must do something for itself, even if that something does not correspond with Palestinian policies, demands and aspirations. For the first or second time, we are deciding to take our fate and our future into our own hands rather than reacting to a situation.
With regard to international legitimacy, it doesn't look as though there will be any legitimacy - but it was the same case before the first disengagement. Now we are seeing international legitimacy, although maybe not for Sharon's policy of giving Gaza back to the Palestinians and no longer having any responsibility. Luckily, that was not accepted by the international community, but they accepted and also, eventually, assisted Israel to withdraw from Gaza and to unilaterally decide its positions.
I was not in favor of the disengagement in Gaza, saying it wasn't for security and would not move us one inch forward in the peace process. But it did two things for the Israelis. It showed them that the uprooting of settlements is possible - contrary to many people's claims. Also, it showed Israelis - and maybe the Palestinians and the rest of the world as well - that Israel can implement a full withdrawal from a territory to the 1967 border, similar to what we did in Lebanon and Egypt and suggested to the Syrians, and similar to what I hope we'll do with the Palestinians in a final-status agreement; i.e. a withdrawal to the Green Line which will include an exchange of territories based on 1:1 proportions. This withdrawal to the 1967 border line is historically very important. It also gives the current government the ability to talk about uprooting settlements in the West Bank which, all in all, is a good thing.

Omar Karmi: Dr. Pundak is suggesting that unilateralism in this context is very much an Israeli issue that might make it possible in the future to lead to an end of occupation. From the Palestinian perspective, is it an opportunity?

Mazen Sinnokrot: It depends. To a certain extent, this Israeli government and coalition might present an opportunity. At the same time, we should look at the new political regime in Palestine. If we take this opportunity, we can change the agenda and the mindset and proceed to look at the possibilities rather than at the threats in the region. Unfortunately, today, Israel has convinced the United States and others around the world that this is a time of threat, not opportunity. They want to capitalize on the fact that a good number of countries applauded Sharon when he addressed the UN after the disengagement. Sharon became a hero of peace, and they are trying to wipe out the occupation and all the negative things he did during his political tenure.
There is an opportunity for all parties concerned, but I don't see that the Palestinians are being given a chance. The Palestinians have lost hope. They trust neither the Israeli nor the American policy.
When Abu Mazen succeeded Yasser Arafat, he came in with a clear mandate. The people voted for him and for his program, but saw no tangible results - even though he was welcomed by the American administration and is, in a way, trusted by many Israelis, as a person of transparency, accountability and honesty. Abu Mazen always made it clear that he wants to create a culture of peace not violence, but for over a year now he has not been given a chance.
There is a new mandate of the Kadima party and the coalition government. Will they really try to achieve progress? This depends partly on the Palestinians; it also depends on the international community's readiness to give this Israeli government the green light. Olmert has been trying to sell his program. He went to the United States, to the Europeans; he's been to some Arab countries in the region - Egypt and Jordan - trying to convince everybody of the virtues of his program. It is a transitional period and everybody has a role to play. The Palestinians definitely have to clean their house and become more unified on a strategic political program to be presented to the international community. That entails a change of tactics, of political discourse, especially by the Hamas newcomers and the Legislative Council (PLC).

Omar Karmi: On a strategic level, wouldn't there be some sense for the Palestinians to say: "Withdraw. We're not paying any political price. Nobody is asking us about it. We don't have to commit to anything."
In a way, what Hamas seems to want is to let the Israelis withdraw from settlements without negotiations, then the Palestinians are not bound by any commitments

Nazmi Ju'beh: Nobody is saying we'll stop withdrawal or the dismantling of settlements. That is not the issue at all. Unilateralism also involves the construction of the wall. It is now clear that it is not being built in the interest of security. Even the Israeli Supreme Court declared that it's more of a political border than a security fence. If we look at the two elements together - unilateralism and the wall - then we have a clear picture of what is behind this ideology.
The third element is the statement, since Camp David, that "there is no Palestinian partner." In an interview after the election of Hamas, I said: "We cannot elect a better partner for the Israelis in a peace process than Abu Mazen." And yet, he was rejected. He came to power with a very pragmatic political program. He even tackled one of the most sensitive issues - the refugees - in his political platform and received the assent of the Palestinians and got elected by a large majority. So he was more than qualified as a partner, but he was dismissed. Not verbally, but in practice he was dismissed by the Israeli side
I do not think they are looking for a partner at all. A partner is a problem with whom you have to deal on an equal level. I think the Israeli leadership still looks at the Palestinian people as a problem, not as a people with a right to exist independently in their homeland. And if you have a problem, you try your best to solve it. Unilateralism is an Israeli solution to the problem. It's not a strategy to develop a partner.

Danny Rubinstein: Even had there been negotiations about Gaza and we had withdrawn after an agreement with Abu Mazen, I don't think it would have strengthened Abu Mazen. The Palestinian situation is much more complicated.
Recently, when Olmert was in London, he said with great pride, "We have given Abu Mazen weapons and arms in order to encourage and strengthen him." Of course, the result is just the opposite. It makes him like the Village Leagues in the 1980s, like the collaborators. It's the worst thing Olmert could do. Afterwards, Abu Mazen denied accepting any arms from Israel. It's very typical of Israeli politicians not to understand.
I think, from the point of view of most Israelis, there is no difference between Abu Mazen and Hamas on the political level. Both of them want Israel to pull back to the 1967 borders. With recognition, without recognition, who cares? There are 150 to 200 states in the world who recognize Israel, so who needs Hamas' recognition? We are here. Israel benefits from Hamas because they provide a good excuse for the government to say: "We're not dealing with them. They're crazy. They're al-Qaeda."
I agree that unilateralism and separation go together with the wall. And what I want to say emphatically about the wall is that it's crazy. Sometimes I go around Jerusalem to look at it. Some neighborhoods are surrounded on all sides. It cannot work, especially here in Jerusalem. It is separating Palestinians from Palestinians for no reason. There is no security justification. Nothing at all.
I believe - I hope - that this whole attitude of the wall will collapse. But right now - and I'm sorry to say it - the only option we have for pulling back from some territories is Olmert's idea.
The wall does not provide security to anyone, but it creates an illusion of security within Israel. It justifies and legitimizes the withdrawal. We withdraw, but not for the Palestinians. We do it for ourselves. Right now, that's the only route to the dismantling and uprooting of settlements, and the settlements are the biggest obstacle to peace.

Omar Karmi: We have spoken a little about internal Palestinian affairs. You seem to be suggesting that the combination of the wall and unilateralism is the only way that settlements can be removed. Is there no chance for a bilateral process?

Ron Pundak: In order to implement Olmert's fullfledged convergence plan, there must be a bilateral agreement based on a clear endgame of the final agreement. In order for a society to tolerate the tension, and maybe even the killings, which this kind of a full withdrawal might entail, the price has to be worth it for the society.
I believe it can be done once. You can't do it many times. In other words, you can uproot 60,000 or 80,000 or even 100,000 Israelis from the West Bank, only if the society feels it will benefit in the short and long term- not like what happened with the Gaza Strip, but real benefits to the society.
For that reason, I believe this should be kept for the big agreement which will include all the pending issues such as Jerusalem and refugees. The idea of postponing other issues - like another 10 percent of the territory, Jerusalem, refugees, water and air rights and so on - is contrary to Israeli selfinterests, nor is it good for Palestinian interests.
It seems now they are only speaking about a first stage, to include withdrawal from the south of Hebron and some areas in the Jordan Valley and the northern West Bank. It's true that this might become a means for convincing Israelis, because these kinds of settlements are easier to uproot. But all the other withdrawals from the hardcore settlements, will be postponed again.

Omar Karmi: In other words, you believe bilateral is absolutely necessary.
On the Palestinian side, a similar question. The referendum document implicitly recognizes a twostate solution and pre1967 borders. Is this unilateralism or bilateralism? Are people happy to see this?

Mazen Sinnokrot: I'm not sure there will be a referendum. Abu Mazen has stated that, if the parties agree, there won't be a referendum. I don't think it would be good for the Palestinians. A referendum without any tangible benefits from the Israelis is a dead end. According to Olmert, a referendum is useless if it's not perceived that the Palestinians are changing tactics and are making progress in terms of goodwill.
I think that has not been appreciated by either Israelis or Americans so, in my opinion, it will not have any benefits for the Palestinian political cause. More important is what has been negotiated among the different political parties. If Hamas and the other political parties accept, for example, the Arab initiative, this would constitute, directly or indirectly, recognition of Israel. This will come when there is an incentive from the Israelis. What Danny said was clear: If Israel is recognized by over 100 countries, what is the added value of recognition by Hamas?
The Palestinians and their political parties must be encouraged to come out with a new and unified political discourse. If the opposite happens, it will serve neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli national security. Palestinians will say they don't have anything more to lose; they have tried everything and nothing has worked. So we go back to square one. This will not help Olmert, or the Palestinians or the Americans. In my opinion, the Americans are making the same mistake here as in Iraq.

Nazmi Ju'beh: The polls still say that the majority of Palestinians are in favor of a negotiated agreement. An absolute majority still support Abu Mazen's approach.
It's sad that the Israelis do not invest in this. On the contrary, they are highlighting the positions of the current Hamas government which does not represent the majority of Palestinians.
The fact remains that the majority of Palestinians are willing to negotiate an agreement; they know exactly what that agreement will look like, what price they will have to pay, and what benefits they will reap.
Unfortunately, the Israelis are still investing in the minority of the Palestinian people. For instance, the issue that Hamas has to recognize Israel. This is nonsense. I am in favor of Hamas doing that. I need it for internal Palestinian reasons, not because the Israelis need it. We are fed up with Israel's needs. Their list is very long and never ends. Every few days, Arafat had to reiterate recognition of the state and to denounce violence, but could never satisfy them. I would be very happy if we agreed upon the Arab initiative recognized by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.
I think the current government has to accept all the agreements and recognitions made by the previous government. We cannot always begin from zero, and we're not going to invest another 30 years of our peoples' lives to reach the same conclusions that the PLO has reached. On the other hand, we need a lot of recognitions from the Israeli side. Unfortunately, we did not always demand that. I do not know what Olmert's clearcut position on a Palestinian state is: where will it be, how will he deal with it, what will be the relationship with the Green Line?
Israeli civil society also has to push a little bit more for the recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people. There could be an exchange of recognition, and that would empower us to push our government to clearly recognize previous agreements.
I still believe we can evade the wall and unilateralism. We will reach the negotiating table. There is no other option. With two states, there is a form of status. Either you are at war with your neighbor or you have peace with your neighbor. You cannot live forever with a hudna (cease-fire).

Danny Rubinstein: I think all of us would agree that this kind of convergence will not bring security or peace to Israel. So what's the benefit? It will weaken the right wing and the hardliners in Israel. That's the only benefit that I see from this convergence plan. We have to understand, all of us, that separation, as a principle, is not bad. The ultimate solution to both Israel's problem and the Palestinians' problem is either two states for the two peoples or one state for the two peoples. I think we all support the first option, two states.

Nazmi Ju'beh: Still.

Danny Rubinstein: Because the other option is constant violence.

Nazmi Ju'beh: Transfer.

Danny Rubinstein: Transfer is not an option. This benefit of weakening the hardliners in Israel is good for all of us. And that may be the only reason to agree - not to be happy about it - but to agree to the convergence plan.

Omar Karmi: You're saying there's some sort of strategic benefit to unilateralism. Another aspect is the practical aspect of it on the economic level. The Palestinians are imprisoned at the moment. In order to create an environment conducive to negotiations, you need some kind of progress on the ground, and the economy is very important in that regard.

Mazen Sinnokrot: Yes. You can't separate economics from politics, especially in this region. Israel started a program of economic disengagement when they clearly said, more than a year ago that they would not allow Palestinians to work in Israel. The Israelis started bargaining about the Paris Protocol. The disengagement from Gaza, the closing of Karni crossing are signs of economic disengagement. They are trying to convince the Israeli private sector to accept the new developments on the ground.
Israel cannot say that they want to economically disengage from the Palestinians, and then not allow them other avenues to find partners. This is unfair and unacceptable. In Rafah, to date, the only border agreement is the one which was signed on the 15th of November 2005, in the presence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Very little of that memorandum of understanding has been implemented. The corridors for the passage of people and goods between the West Bank and Gaza have not been implemented. The Karni border crossing has been closed over 52 percent of the time. Its operation is down from 15 to six or seven hours a day. Israelis can always say it's because of security, but they are smothering our economy.
I, personally, have tried to convince them to allow the export of Gazan goods through Egypt, without success so far. Nothing tangible is happening on the ground that brings benefit to the Gazan economy or an alternative to the closures.
The same thing applies to the West Bank with the separation wall and the annexation of a large area of the Jordan Valley. We are sandwiched between the Jordan Valley in the east and this eight-meter-high wall in the west. We cannot move anywhere. I don't think this is good neither for the Israeli economy nor for ours.
For the last four decades, Israel has been - and still is - the Palestinians' major trading partner. Imports from Israel or via Israel exceed U.S. $3 billion and exports to Israel amount to less than U.S. $400 million. The Israelis feel that that doesn't amount to much. They have found substitutes in Africa and China and the former Soviet Union countries, and definitely Europe and the United States. This is really not very encouraging for our economy. And I'm talking about the Israeli government's policy.
There have to be alternatives for the Palestinians. The Karni border crossing has to be opened and to become an international border crossing so our economy can start diversifying and looking for other partners for importing and exporting. The passageway with Jordan has to be opened to allow for a free flow of goods.
The Israeli private sector was forced to leave Erez two years ago by military orders, and they were highly compensated by their government. We have to encourage them and Palestinians to come back to this industrial park in order to create successful regional integration between private sectors. This did not work because of the absence of a clear governmental policy and lack of goodwill by the private sector. So now the Palestinian economy is going to suffer, even more so as a result of the unilateral disengagement, and poverty and unemployment will increase.

Ron Pundak: This economic dimension exists regardless of whether there is unilateral withdrawal or a wall. We still see a much more flexible economic regime between Israel and the West Bank, due to the relations between the two sides, but mainly because of the physical situation. As long as there is not one long physical border between the two sides, Israel cannot implement, even if it wants to, the same regime as it implemented in Gaza in terms of entry and exit. Once the wall is finished and the 11 gates are prepared to "regulate" the points of entry and exit for goods and people between Israel and the West Bank, then Israel might implement the same policy it did in Gaza. Then we will have a situation of Karni and Erez in the West Bank which will create real devastation for the Palestinian economy, and also, for the Israeli economy. The 13 billion shekels being sold to the Palestinians may only be two percent of Israeli exports, but it's still a lot of money. Exporters from Israel to the West Bank and Gaza include some of the biggest companies. One must take that into consideration in order to preempt total disarray resulting from a hastily implemented situation.
On the other hand, we are drawing conclusions about the situation in the West Bank and Gaza based on what we learned in previous times. But then we had a different minister of finance, prime minister, minister of defense, and government. It's possible that this government will look at the economy as a tool for creating a more positive environment. We might see this government operating according to a totally different strategy.
Olmert and Peretz and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who are today steering the process, are looking differently at the economy and the relations between Israel and the Palestinian economic private sector. For that reason, I am a bit more hopeful about change both in Gaza and in the West Bank. This is the time that Israelis and Palestinians should be thinking jointly about policy recommendations to this current government. Today there is a disengagement law which says that, by 2007-2008, there will be no Palestinian workers coming in from Gaza or the West Bank. Olmert is ready to rethink this. There is no doubt that Peretz is ready to rethink it and other things as well. Things are grim, however we now have similar circumstances but a different government; and circumstances can be changed according to government policy.
We can converge the issues of the economy and security, and also what I call the creation of hope, hope for both sides. Fear is governing the situation. I would like to reiterate that the majority of the Israeli public is ready, today, to sign an agreement based on the Clinton or the Geneva parameters. But the same Israeli public is afraid of the Palestinians, whether it is real fear or something connected to our psychopolitics. We need to deal with this fear. Dealing with this fear through the Hamas government and politics and no recognition is wrong. Maybe we need to deal with this fear with new messages.
I again ask the Palestinians to do something which we are constantly asking for - and you're fed up with our requests - but it's for the benefit of both sides. For example, the right of return. I believe this is not a real threat. But from the point of view of Israelis, it is a threat. Different language in things like that can ease the situation, so will a hudna, a longterm ceasefire; doing those things can change the circumstances of the situation on the ground. If there were no security threat, together with joint language of coexistence regarding the future, I can envision a much better situation.

Mazen Sinnokrot: I don't know the priorities of this Israeli government when it comes to the economic agenda. Since they have been in power, they haven't shown any good intentions. They are talking about gateways through the separation wall, new borders, a new economic regime between the West Bank and Gaza and Israel. They are trying to separate the two, Gaza and Israel and the West Bank and Israel, which is a very dangerous political approach.
When it comes to the border crossings, everybody knows that there is a certain mandate. We don't see any policy changes. The same Israeli methodology is being pursued, the same exercises. The management of the border crossings, even those close to the 1967 borders - Tarkumia or Tulkarem - is still in Israeli hands. Scanners acquired with American money for the sake of the Palestinian people are on the Israeli side of the line, and they are managed from a security point of view and a technical point of view by the Israelis.
Secondly, Israel is aware, more than anybody else - even more than many of the Arab countries - of the needs of the Palestinians. They have been occupying this area for the last 40 years, and they have been witnessing what can be detrimental and what can create more prosperity. Israel mostly understands collective economic punishment against the Palestinians, and that should not be acceptable to anybody.
I believe that the good brains in Israel can come up with alternatives. They understand the history and the depth of their neighbors. I have heard many Israeli leaders say they lost an opportunity with Abu Mazen, that they should have given him a chance. And now they're repeating the same mistakes. During the last couple of months, I have not seen any well-intentioned program. Israel knows that we are in dire need of job opportunities for 50,000, even 100,000 people. We cannot send them to Jordan or Geneva or Mexico. Israel has been bringing in people from Rumania, Thailand, China, and not employing Palestinians. They can always say it's because of security. I'm not denying that one crazy person can cause harm to Israelis, but that does not mean that the other thousands have to be punished. It's very important today for the Israeli government to set priorities for an economic program. Israel knows that our economy can't breathe, and everything is in its hands.

Nazmi Ju'beh: I am not an economist, but the Palestinian economy, since the Oslo agreement, has been held hostage to Israeli considerations. We have different holidays, different agendas and economic development. The Palestinian market does not have free access to the international market from Palestine, or free borders for the exchange of goods.
I can understand all the security arrangements and considerations, but I cannot understand why the goods of a Palestinian company exporting through Haifa are stuck there for two or three weeks or more for security considerations or for holiday discrepancies, etc. This does not give our economy a chance. We cannot even convince Palestinian investors to invest under these conditions. We have to invest a lot in the economic sector. Otherwise, we have no chance whatsoever for any peaceful coexistence.
Recently, we have begun to face deep class conflicts within our society. We have to understand the social context, but also that there is no free-market economy without free exchange at the borders. We are part of a free-market economy but we do not have free-market conditions. Nobody can develop an economy under these conditions.

Ron Pundak: There is also an issue about the ability of the Israeli economy to sustain a withdrawal from the point of view of how much it will cost to uproot and compensate 80,000 Israelis. According to all the figures by the economists, if we do in the West Bank what we did Gaza, it is going to be too costly for Israel, unless it receives international assistance. However, a caveat: this was also said about the wall, that Israel would not be able to sustain the expense. And yet it's still building both settlements and the wall. So for people who are saying the cost will be too great for Israel, I say maybe yes, maybe not. <