Was the visit of U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice a total failure? Or would the reported agreement on coordinating the pullout and cooperating in destroying settlers’ homes between Israel and the PA be considered a breakthrough?

While Rice concluded Sunday a two days visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, most of the fundamental issues related to coordinating the disengagement plan between Israel and the PA were left unresolved.

It is true that Rice managed to guarantee an in principle PA approval for coordinating the process of evacuation and that of destroying settlers’ homes, yet fundamental issues such as, in the day after the pullout who would control Rafah’ border crossing, how would the West Bank and Gaza be linked, would the PA be allowed to operate Gaza airport and seaport, and how would both parties deal with the ongoing West Bank settlement expansion and the drastic effects of the separation wall.

Rice left the area, leaving those crucial issues to be resolved in meetings between Israel and the PA on one side, and Israel and Egypt on the other; a process that has failed in the pass, and is likely doomed to fail due to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s desire to keep the disengagement unilateral so as not to be forced to deal with those fundamental issues, which would have geopolitical consequences beyond the pullout itself.

The Philadelphi route and Rafah’s border crossing:

Parallel to Rice’s visit, Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman arrived to the area to prepare for the expected arrival of Egyptian foreign minister Mouhamed Abul-Ghaith. Deployment of more Egyptian troops along the Egypt-Gaza borders and the control over the Rafah’ crossing between Egypt and Gaza is the focus of the diplomatic talks between both sides.

Israeli Vise Premier Shimon Peres is also set to leave for talks with Egyptian President Husni Mubarak on the same topic.

The Egyptians together with Palestinians are calling for a total departure of Israeli troops from the southern Gaza Strip area. Egypt has proposed to deploy more troops along the borders in order to prevent smuggling of weapons, and is calling Israel to handover control over the Rafah crossing to the Palestinian Authority.

Israel, from its side understands that leaving its troops along the southern Gaza border route is a serious security hazard, yet is still far from being ready to trust the Egyptian on securing borders, or the on operating the border crossing. The Israeli stand is more of accepting the idea in principle but delaying the implementation to a ‘more convenient time’

‘What doesn’t go with the pride doesn’t follow later on’ is a famous Arabic say. Based on the historical experience in the implementation of agreements, both Egyptians and Palestinians are rightly concerned that after the disengagement there will be no momentum for further progress, therefore, calls for delays are understood as ‘it is never going to happen’

If Israel pullout its troops from the border area and the handover of the border crossing to Palestinians, the Gaza Strip would be saved from being turned into a big prison after Israel completes the evacuation of settlements the redeployment of its troops to the Palestinian Strip borders.

Suleiman warned Peres in their Sunday’ meeting that Gaza could explode in the aftermath of the withdrawal. Peres responded saying that he agree that ‘Gaza first should not be Gaza last’, but did not forget to note that he wasn’t in agreement with Sharon on this issue.

It is very likely that the border issue will not be settled, and that the Palestinian and Egyptian sides would be forced to accept a continued Israeli control over the border area, with an Israel promise for a future revision of its stand.

West Bank-Gaza contiguity:          

Even as the 1993 Oslo agreement obliges Israel to provide a ‘free passage’ between the Gaza Strip and the West bank, and as the Israel pullout to the borders of Gaza would leave the isolated strip to the hands of the PA, Israel is still wavering in providing a link between Gaza and the West Bank.

The best Sharon was welling to offer was to run a closed-doors train from the northern Gaza Strip to the southern part of the West Bank. A proposal that even his deputy, Peres, considered as unrealistic, saying: ‘it would take at least 3 years to construct and operate the train line, and that it would cost around $170 million that Israel can’t afford to allocate’

Even as Israel is close to complete the construction of the West Bank separation, which would, according to Israeli security, elevates most of the security hazards, and for political reasons related to his vision of a long term interim solution that allows Israel to keep full control over the entire Palestinian territories, Sharon is likely to propose arrangements in which movement between both areas would be subjected to Israeli approval and control.

In other words, Israel is likely to be open to increase the number of permits offered to Gazans to visit the West bank.

Expected to be that bivalent in rejecting a free internal contiguity, one can’t expect that Israel would be in any way forwarding in allowing the operation of the Gaza airport or the continuity of the construction of the seaport.

In a Sunday protest against the state of lawlessness in Ramalah, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, the head of the Palestinian initiative, presented a pessimistic view that is uncommon among Palestinians.

‘Palestinians were cheated three times, once when kicked out of their homes in 1948, then when the rest of their land was occupied in 1967, then when the PLO signed Oslo, allowing for a massive expansion of settlements the construction of the separation wall; we should not be cheated for the fourth time and accept for the Gaza pullout to become a pretext for Israel to takeover most of what is left of the West Bank land’

West Bank settlement expansion:

Upon arrival to the area, Rice hinted opposition to the establishment of  new settlements in the West Bank, and made note to the problems created by the construction of the separation wall. 

Yet, and even when Rice praised Abbas as ‘a man of peace’, most Palestinians didn’t take her notes seriously. In fact many Palestinian officials expressed pessimistic views over the outcome of her visit.

‘We heard nothing new, seemingly all issues are left for Abbas and Sharon to discuss in the coming few days’ said a senior PA official.

No Israel officials, including right wing hawks, are proposing the construction of new settlements. All are talking about ‘expanding West Bank settlement blocks’. For example: expanding the settlement of Maalee Adumim, would triple its current built up area and link it to Jerusalem; this is not a construction of a new settlements, and presumably Rice is not opposed to.

According to the Israeli newspaper Youdot Aharanot, The Israeli housing ministry, even under a Labor minister, is planning to publish bids for 700 structures to be built inside the West Bank.

It seems that Sharon is adamant in preserving the unilateral character of the disengagement plan, and is only open for coordinating security and logistical issue related to the implementation of the disengagement plan with the PA, therefore all the talks on disengagement paving the way for activating the roadmap peace plan are likely to present a wishful thinking, and largely unfounded.  

Sharon said on Sunday that the American administration approved Israel’s demand that there will be no political or diplomatic negotiations with the PA, or any jumpstarting of the road map, until the PA dismantles all armed resistance groups, collect arms, and enforce law and order.