WASHINGTON -- Because we Americans tend to gauge Middle East success by White House signing ceremonies complete with dignitaries, three-way handshakes and pages of treaty provisions, no one seems to have noticed how, in the absence of any of that, there has been amazing recent progress in defusing the Arab-Israeli dispute.
First, the more than four-year-long intifada, which left more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians dead, is over. And better than that, defeated. There's no great Palestinian constituency for starting another one. In Israel, tourism is back, the economy has recovered to pre-intifada levels and the coffee shops and malls are full once again.
Second, the Gaza withdrawal was a success. On the Israeli side, it was accomplished with remarkable speed and without any of the great social upheaval and civil strife that had been predicted. As for the Palestinians, without any fanfare whatsoever, their first-ever state has just been born. They have political independence for 1.3 million of their people, sovereignty over all of Gaza and, for the first time, a border to the outside world (the Rafah crossing to Egypt) that they control.
Third, on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian line, vigorous electoral campaigns are under way. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has abandoned Likud, established a new centrist party that leads all the others in the polls, effectively marginalized those remaining Israelis who want to hold on forever to all the territories, and set Israel on a path to a modest and attainable territorial solution to the century-old conflict.
As a result, Israel's regional isolation is easing, as Islamic countries from Pakistan to Qatar to Morocco openly extend or intensify relations, while anti-Israel rejectionists such as Syria and Hezbollah are isolated and even condemned by name in the U.N. Security Council.
How did this come about? Israel unilateralism and Palestinian maturation.
After a year and a half of unparalleled terror, culminating with the Passover massacre of 2002, the Israelis finally decided that they had to give up the illusion of a Palestinian peace partner and take things into their own hands. They did. Israel reoccupied the West Bank cities it had ceded to Yasser Arafat, who had used them as havens of terror; began an extremely effective campaign of targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders that ultimately induced their successors to declare a truce with Israel; and, most important, decided to unilaterally draw the border between Israel and Palestine.
Gaza is now 100 percent Palestinian. The security fence Israel is building in the West Bank will, in effect, create a second Palestinian sovereignty on 92 percent of that territory. Everyone knows what that fence means. Israelis on the Palestinian side of the fence will ultimately leave one way or the other. And, in a final settlement -- if and when the Palestinians ever decide to make their peace with a Jewish state -- that remaining 8 percent could be exchanged for pieces of Israel transferred to Palestine. (The New Republic of Nov. 28 has a must-read article on the land swaps that could once and for all end the Arab-Israeli dispute.)
The other great watershed has been the maturation of the Palestinian national movement. Arafat was a revolutionary who disdained nation-building. Revolutionaries destroy the old order. His mission was to destroy Israel. Which is why, to the consternation of his Western admirers, in 10 years he built not a single schoolhouse, hospital or road in the territory he controlled. Instead, he built a dozen private militias and a state propaganda machine designed to poison the new generation against Israel. Now that he is gone, the Palestinian cause can begin the demystification from revolution to nation-building.
The other demystification was Gaza. The Gaza Palestinians have just received exactly what they wished for: self-government, borders, openings to the outside world and a complete absence of any Jews. As a result, however, they are now faced with the distinctly unromantic task of creating their new state. It's not that many Gazans would not like to continue the romance of revolutionary terror and jihad. But they no longer have the means. The separation fence makes it almost impossible to launch attacks into Israel. And rockets launched into Israeli towns are met by retaliatory Israeli artillery barrages that make the rocketeers rather unpopular at home. A similar equilibrium will be achieved on the West Bank when the fence is completed next year.
Sharon represents the majority of Israelis bent on achieving that equilibrium. It will not only bring stability and relative peace, but also offers the contours of an ultimate settlement. That's why even old regional antagonists see the promise of this moment -- all achieved, mind you, without a single Rose Garden ceremony.