For many years, these were the terms in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was widely understood: The Palestinians were struggling for partition, while Israel was the reluctant party. On the surface, Israel's invasion of Gaza might appear to confirm that dynamic. But, in fact, the opposite is true: Israel's current war in Gaza could turn out to be a necessary step toward imposing a two-state solution on a Palestinian side that has long balked at partition.
We are back, it seems, at square one. In 1947, Zionists accepted the United Nations's partition plan because it would secure an area with a Jewish majority. Palestinians rejected it for much the same reason: If the land were not divided, they would have a clear Arab majority in all of it. While it is true that the idea of Greater Israel held appeal for many Israelis in the decades following the Six Day War, a solid majority in Israel turned toward partition in 1993 when it committed to the Oslo framework. In return for peace, Israel was ready to give up the vast majority of the West Bank and Gaza. Then came what Israelis understood to be the moment of truth: Camp David in 2000. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered an almost full withdrawal from the occupied territories, including a division of Jerusalem. Yasir Arafat rejected the offer. There would be no deal, he insisted, without the right of return. Israelis knew the code: The right of return meant millions of Palestinians naturalized on the Israeli side of the divide. It was a plain, ringing "no" to partition.
Gradually, Israelis, or a great many of them, began to realize that history was repeating itself: As in 1947, the Palestinian leadership seemed determined to hold out for a single state--nominally a binational one--in which Jews would constitute a minority. Still, this took a while to sink in. In 2003, Labor's Amram Mitzna ran on a platform of unilateral withdrawal and was trounced by Likud's Ariel Sharon. Yet, two years later, Sharon implemented the very policy he had defeated in that election. The unilateral evacuation of Gaza was considered a success--and the polls predicted a clear victory for Sharon's new party, Kadima, which was poised to continue the same policy in the West Bank. The party won the election, despite Sharon's lapse into a coma. Ehud Olmert became prime minister. Olmert was adamant about the need for unilateral withdrawal and made clear that he would move the dividing line closer to the 1967 border than Sharon would have. At this point, full partition seemed right around the corner.
But Qassam rockets kept coming from Gaza, despite its liberation from the Israeli occupation. The Lebanon War of 2006, when Israel was unable to stop the barrage of Hezbollah shells in the north, reinforced the danger such rockets posed. Suddenly, many former supporters of the Gaza pullout were no longer sure about withdrawing from the West Bank. Wouldn't such a pullout mean rockets fired on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel's international airport, they wondered? The once-promising idea of unilateral withdrawal now seemed like an untenable risk.
And that is where things stood on the eve of the Gaza operation: The Palestinian Authority had managed to block partition by agreement, while Hamas had managed to block partition by unilateral withdrawal. The Israeli incursion into Gaza offers a way around this impasse. By stopping the rockets once and for all, the war could represent a step toward assuring Israelis that, following a West Bank pullout, the whole country would not turn into one big Sderot. In other words, the war may be an opportunity to create the circumstances needed for further withdrawals and, ultimately, complete partition.
Of course, this is not what Israelis--and Israel's politicians--are talking about at the moment. The question of the West Bank is on the back burner now, and stopping the rockets from Gaza is, to be sure, an end in itself. Moreover, while stopping the rockets is a necessary condition for any future West Bank pullout, it is probably no longer a sufficient one. The long spell of shelling in Sderot has rekindled the sense of national claustrophobia that is always present beneath the surface in this small state, surrounded as it is by a hostile region. It will take a while for that claustrophobia--on which the hawkish Likud may soon ride to power--to recede. Even when it does, Israel will likely want some international guarantees against rockets in the West Bank before it contemplates withdrawing to the 1967 borders.
Still, most Israelis know that a two-state solution is vital to their country's survival in the long run. Meanwhile, the rockets have only strengthened their suspicion that Palestinian leaders are bent on thwarting partition. As a result, once the smoke clears, unilateral withdrawal will again be the order of the day. And the war, if it succeeds, will have removed a sizeable obstacle on the road to partition. That could be its true significance.
Gadi Taub teaches communications and public policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is an op-ed columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth.
By Gadi Taub