The Gaza Strip is now the pivot for the hopes of a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared in unison the other day. But to say this is to ask an elephant to balance on a peanut.
If you had to choose the most unlikely spot on Earth in which to invest hopes for peace and prosperity, Gaza would be at or near the top of the list. It is a barren and broken enclave filled with 1.3 million perpetually angry and impoverished Palestinians, whose territory and lives were occupied by Egypt in 1948 and by Israel in 1967. Its main product has long been misery.
And yet Gaza must be made whole and free and relatively prosperous. Success there is not a matter of choice or of logic but of dire need. Monumental ingenuity and effort must be expended to hoist Jumbo up on the goober.
Sharon's commitment to withdraw Israeli settlements and soldiers from Gaza offers the only real opening for achieving the final settlement anticipated in the "road map" peace plan that the Israelis and Palestinians, each in their own way, have accepted.
So Bush has usefully pushed Sharon to keep to the commitment to cut the troublesome territory loose, despite opposition in Israel and an appalling lack of cooperation from the Palestinian Authority. This week in Crawford, Tex., Sharon reported to Bush that the withdrawal would start in late July and take about eight weeks.
But the Israeli leader also started to fill in his vision of what the withdrawal means -- and does not mean -- for resumption of negotiations on a final peace settlement. The Palestinians will have to "create the conditions" for future negotiations by establishing near-perfect security conditions, even though Israeli forces could not accomplish that through the occupation of Gaza.
It is this question -- and not the more distant problem of the definition of expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank -- that could come to threaten the cozy relationship Bush and Sharon have developed.
It is understandable that Sharon asks for the dismantling and complete disarming of all "Palestinian terrorist organizations" and a halt to arms smuggling in Gaza. It will be up to Bush to weigh in forcefully on the point that resuming formal peace talks under the road map will make it easier to fulfill these worthy aspirations.
Gaza becomes a laboratory not only for Israeli-Palestinian peace but for the broad rethinking that is needed on international involvement in the conflict zones of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Imposing peace is no longer a matter primarily of muscle. It is also a matter of money and of coordinating the two. True in Darfur and in the Congo, this is also urgently true in Gaza as Sharon moves to fulfill his withdrawal plan.
Sharon and his aides have rejected a scorched-earth approach; they seek a "dignified" withdrawal. More significantly, they are open to heavy engagement in liberated Gaza by the United States, Europe, Egypt and international institutions such as the World Bank. It is less clear that those nations and institutions are willing to take up this challenging assignment.
When Israel asked the World Bank to take over and temporarily administer the buildings and agricultural projects that Jewish settlers will evacuate -- the Palestinians say they will offer no protection to "landmarks of occupation" -- the answer was a swift no. The World Bank doesn't have an army, one official remarked.
True enough. But could the bank take on a larger role in planning, monitoring and implementing peacemaking and peacekeeping operations? "Over the past three decades, no fewer than half of all post-conflict situations have reverted to war within five years of the signing of a peace agreement," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned this week as he appealed for sustained "political, moral and financial" support for peacekeeping in Sudan.
New ways must be found to combine the influence of the money that the United States, Japan, the European Union and a few other nations pay into U.N. and other peacekeeping efforts and the money that they pay into international financial and aid organizations. Precisely because it is so unpromising and so important, Gaza demands radical and urgent efforts to combine peacekeeping muscle with economic and technical assistance.
The World Bank's outgoing president, Jim Wolfensohn, started an important move in that direction. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who takes the World Bank top job in June, should accelerate it.
His Pentagon background -- far from being the liability that many claim -- could be a great asset in bringing post-conflict reconstruction into the 21st century. Jumbo will need massive help from all quarters to stay aloft in Gaza.