Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is traveling to Israel this weekend to salvage Israel's planned pullout from Gaza. The pullout is threatened by violence from Palestinian Islamists and threats from Israeli settlers to block the withdrawal.
But if Rice wants to understand the dangers posed by the Gaza pullback, she should visit southern Lebanon. I was there last week.
A drive around the hilltop villages of Lebanon's south provides a clear and powerful warning: Any Israeli pullback carried out unilaterally -- and not as part of a negotiated deal with the Palestinians -- will undercut Israel's security and the shaky future of the peace process itself.
Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon in 2000 for its own security reasons. But most Lebanese credit the Shiite Muslim militia, Hezbollah, with driving Israel out. The United States labels Hezbollah a terrorist organization, yet Hezbollah now controls the south. It is viewed throughout the region as the one armed Arab group that has defeated Israel -- by suicide bombers and guns.
Drive down south in Lebanon, and nearly every light post is adorned with posters of Hezbollah martyrs killed in battles with Israelis. Hezbollah-run clinics and schools serve the poor. Bus tours take Shiite youths to a former Israeli-run prison and to the frontier with Israel, where they can stare into Israeli military outposts a few yards away, beyond barbed-wire barriers. They visit gift shops where they can buy Hezbollah T-shirts, mugs and cigarette lighters.
The prestige of "expelling" Israel has also made Hezbollah's political wing one of the most powerful players in Lebanese politics, more potent than Amal, the more moderate Shiite party. Hezbollah will soon get seats in the new cabinet.
What are the lessons from this South Lebanon tale for the Gaza pullout? A pullout from Gaza that is carried out unilaterally and not as part of broader peace negotiations will backfire. It will lead Palestinians to the conclusion that the best way to end Israeli occupation is not by negotiations -- but by force.
To understand why, a little background is needed.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the decision to leave Gaza when Yasser Arafat was alive and there appeared to be no viable Palestinian negotiating partner. The pullout was meant to relieve Western pressure on Israel to revive peace negotiations. It was also intended to buy time for Israel to consolidate and expand settlements in the West Bank and finish building a barrier separating Israel from the West Bank.
But with Arafat's death, the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic should have changed.
In January, Palestinians elected the moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who has publicly decried the use of violence to end Israeli occupation. But Abbas is being challenged by the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Like Hezbollah, Hamas is popular because of its charity network and its corruption-free reputation. Abbas had to cancel last Sunday's parliamentary elections lest Hamas challenge his own Fatah party.
Israel, and the Bush administration, want Abbas to crush Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But to rally public support, Abbas must have something to offer his voters. He must be be able to assure them that Islamist violence is undercutting the road to a negotiated two-state solution.
Instead, Gaza is still billed by Israel as a unilateral withdrawal. Most Palestinians see the pullback as an Israeli move meant to ensure future control of the West Bank.
President Bush critiques settlement expansion on the West Bank and talks vaguely about a future return to the "road map." But words have not been backed up by any U.S. action, nor has the White House offered any concrete proposals for how to revive broader talks.
Unless Gaza is linked to a broader process, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be the victors and Palestinians will view the Israeli pullback as the consequence of military attacks. Islamists will become heroes; the more moderate Abbas will be discredited, along with the notion of a two-state solution. A third Palestinian uprising may explode, focused on Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
The unsettling model for what Gaza could become is visible today in southern Lebanon. It is late in the day to prevent it. But that should be Rice's model during her trip.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services..