This is an appropriate time, one week before the official launching of disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, to revisit the concept of unilateralism that underpins this move. I would argue that, taking into account circumstances on all sides, this is on balance the best approach today and for the immediate future.
Undoubtedly a bilateral, negotiated peace process with strong American backing is preferable. But that does not appear to be a viable option for the next few years. A unilateral approach, on the other hand, is viable and feasible. While it will not produce a comprehensive peace settlement, it will at least generate progress and help set the stage for eventual peace. The alternative to unilateralism is probably stagnation or deterioration--not a peace process.
Israel is invoking unilateralism because a large majority of Israelis want progress toward a two-state solution that enables Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. It is doing so because most Israelis seek in any way possible to stop Palestinian suicide bombings. Most Israelis feel relatively little empathy for the Palestinians and have little faith that the current Palestinian leadership can deliver on an acceptable two-state solution.
This explains why, in the course of the past five years, Israelis have elected, and reelected, a tough and aggressive leader, Ariel Sharon, who has little or no trust in Arab peace partners. It explains why the public and institutions like the High Court of Justice have more or less compelled Sharon, against his initial inclinations, to build a security fence on or near the green line and to initiate the dismantling of settlements he himself helped build. This explains why the fence is rapidly taking on the characteristics of a unilateral border that in most places is not very different from the "settlement blocs" border traced by the Clinton and Geneva plans. This is why even Sharon, who is roundly accused by the Palestinians of leaving Gaza precisely in order to stay in the West Bank, no longer talks about the mountain heartland settlements with their 50,000 inhabitants as a viable long-term investment.
The singular exception to this healthy unilateralist trend among the majority of Israelis is Jerusalem, where the fence becomes a wall and its path threatens to start the next intifada by cutting Palestinians off from one another. Only in Arab East Jerusalem does misplaced religious and national sentiment, coupled with cynical political considerations, still cloud Israelis' judgment and divert it from the path of demographic good sense.
The Palestinians are the "object" of Israeli unilateralism because of all the opportunities they've turned down, from 1937 to 2000, to enter into a two-state solution. Israel invoked disengagement because Yasser Arafat preferred a strategy of violence and corruption to one of state-building. And, finally, we have arrived at unilateralism because the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who is indeed a man of peace and moderation, has not yet persuaded enough Israelis (and American administration officials) that he can deliver on peace and stability in real time, i.e., before the demographic issues overwhelm both sides.
Finally, unilateralism has become the name of the game because President George W. Bush has endorsed it. He has taken this step because his priorities do not permit him to commit American resources to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the near future. His administration's Middle East order of business requires that he deal first with Iraq, where he is in deep trouble, Iran, for which he has no solutions, and democratization in places like Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, where he has no magic formula for confronting dynamic Islamist movements that exploit democratization to move into leadership positions. There is no room in this complex of interests and dilemmas for the huge risks embodied in shepherding another Israeli-Palestinian process.
Hence, whatever lip service Bush pays now and after disengagement to the roadmap and a Palestinian state solution, he is much more likely to get behind the idea of a second disengagement, meaning additional partial progress (that could conceivably be clothed as phase two of the roadmap), than to push Sharon or his successor into comprehensive negotiations.
But suppose Bush does opt to pressure Israel to accept a real peace process. Suppose Sharon either changes his mind or is succeeded by an Israeli leader who wants to negotiate. And suppose Abbas consolidates his rule and emerges as a viable interlocutor. Taken together, these are not likely near-term developments, but even if they materialize I doubt a successful negotiated comprehensive settlement is possible. The Palestinians will be offered a few percentage points less territory than last time and, true to their legacy, will reject the offer yet again. And the Israeli political system, which has precipitated the early demise of every single ruling coalition for the past 17 years over the Palestinian issue, will prove incapable of taking more than a single, partial step in the right direction before yet another government collapses.
In other words, under even these best case--and unlikely--circumstances, a unilateralist or fragmented approach may well continue to characterize the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the coming years.- Published 8/8/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Getting away with it
by Ghassan Khatib
The unilateral approach to dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a right-wing Israeli invention that at the time it was first proposed was justified because of the "absence of a Palestinian partner" for bilateral negotiations and agreements.
It aims at enabling the Israeli government to escape the inevitable obligations and consequences that would have arisen from bilateral negotiations. A bilateral approach would of necessity derive from previous agreements reached under the peace process and taken its legitimacy from international law and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
The Quartet-proposed roadmap plan for peace as a basis for a bilateral peace process was difficult for Israel to reject due to its strong international backing. However, it contradicted the political positions of this particular Israeli government, a self-confessed opponent of the peace process upon which the roadmap was based. The roadmap, for example, is about "ending the occupation that started in 1967", while this particular Israeli government is about consolidating that occupation and eventually annexing at least a significant part of occupied territory.
The roadmap also calls for an immediate cessation of the illegal settlement expansion policy of the Israeli government, a policy supported by the majority of this Israeli government's domestic popular base.
So to avoid the necessary engagement that the peace process and the political parameters offered by the international community in the form of the roadmap would have entailed, Israel instead embarked on a unilateral approach. This is consistent with this Israeli government's two overarching objectives: to solve the "demographic problem"--by shifting the demographic balance in Israel and within the occupied areas Israel is trying to maintain control over; and to consolidate Israeli control over as much occupied territory as possible.
The unilateral Israeli approach, in withdrawing from Gaza Strip settlements, is thus putting 1.3 million Palestinians outside areas of direct Israeli control while giving up only three percent of the occupied territories. At the same time, it allows Israel a free hand in increasing the pace of settlement expansion in the rest of the occupied territories.
The Palestinian side, which has shown, especially after holding free and democratic elections, that it constitutes a viable and serious partner for a peace process, has now found itself facing two difficulties. One is the unilateral plan itself, and the second is an international community, represented by the Quartet members, that is willing to give up or suspend its own plan, i.e., the roadmap, and free Israel from its obligations under that plan. The international community has shown its willingness to do so by giving its support to Israel's unilateral approach without trying to link it, except rhetorically, to the roadmap.
Meanwhile, everyone, starting with US President George W. Bush, has given the Palestinian side the same advice: try to make this unilateral plan successful. And whenever Palestinians raise other and more fundamental components of this same unilateral plan--i.e., what Israel is doing unilaterally in the West Bank--the response is that that will have to wait until after the Gaza disengagement. In other words, the international community has let Israel off the hook in terms of its commitments under the roadmap.
On the surface, the unilateral Gaza disengagement plan might seem to create a positive atmosphere and the false impression of progress toward peace. But eventually, in the medium and long-terms, this unilateral step as declared and implemented, and taking into consideration the accompanying unilateral steps Israel is taking elsewhere in occupied territory, will not move us nearer to a final and comprehensive peace. The latter requires moving gradually toward ending the occupation in all territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and allowing for an independent Palestinian state on that land.- Published 8/8/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Disengagement must lead to a negotiating process
by Shlomo Brom
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement was born of three factors: a conviction that Israel has no partner for bilateral negotiations; an understanding that the Israeli public wishes its government to take an initiative that extricates Israel from the deadlock created by the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the violent intifada; and an illusion that after this limited step is implemented, it will be possible to freeze everything and avoid any further steps. This illusion is likely to be very short-lived.
Other than removing the Gaza Strip settlers from harm's way by evacuating them from the area, it is doubtful whether disengagement will bring any longer term benefits unless it is part of a process. That process must, first, create and sustain hope among the two peoples that the future will be better than the present, and second, take real steps toward realization of the most important goals of the two peoples: safeguarding the existence of the Jewish state, security and recognition for Israelis; and end of occupation and normal life and sovereignty for the Palestinians. In the absence of such a process it is quite probable that failed expectations on the two sides will lead to a new crisis and new rounds of violence.
This awareness is gradually filtering down to the Israeli public and polity. But there is still a division between those who support a process based on a series of unilateral Israeli steps, possibly reciprocated by unilateral Palestinian steps, and proponents of negotiated settlements, whether partial or comprehensive.
The unilateral path has two advantages: it is not dependent on Palestinian cooperation and on the way the domestic Palestinian arena develops, and it gives Israel full control over determination of the border between Israel and the Palestinian political entity. These advantages are more then balanced by a long list of disadvantages.
First, unilateralism is a defeatist concept that ignores the changes in the Palestinian Authority and denies them a chance to mature and create the right environment for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The presumption of the supporters of this approach is that the death of Arafat and his replacement by Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the Palestinian leader who opposed the militarization of the intifada from the outset, changes nothing on the Palestinian side. This is a self- fulfilling prophecy that almost guarantees the failure of the new Palestinian leadership's efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority and ensures the rise to power of the forces within the Palestinian people that oppose reconciliation with Israel.
Second, the unilateral approach ignores the effect that post-disengagement events may have on the political feasibility of implementing further unilateral steps. If disengagement is followed by a new outbreak of violence, the Israeli public will probably perceive it as a failure and will be reluctant to embrace any further "adventurist" initiatives that might have similar results. The opponents of the disengagement plan would argue that their positions are vindicated, while the Israeli extreme right wing would get an important political boost.
One of the most interesting developments in Israeli thinking in recent years is the growing understanding of the importance of international legitimacy. As a result Sharon, the leading figure among Israeli politicians who followed Ben Gurion's slogan "what the Jews do is important, what the gentiles say about it is much less important," is now looking fervently for ways of endowing disengagement with international legitimacy. The present disengagement plan, as the first phase of a unilateral process, may get international legitimacy if the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is complete. Further unilateral steps will probably not gain international legitimacy because they determine unilaterally the border between Israel and the Palestinians. On the other hand, every negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement has inherent international legitimacy. Even the Iranian regime, a bitter enemy of Israel that opposes its existence, has stipulated several times that if the Palestinians (or Syria) reach a peace agreement with Israel, they will accept it.
Even the implementation of the present disengagement plan cannot be fully unilateral. The closer the date of implementation, the clearer it becomes that coordination and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and third parties is essential for the success of the plan. Yet adherence to the "religion" of unilateralism makes this extremely difficult, and if the only idea Israel is capable of proposing to the Palestinians and the international community is more unilateral steps, it will become practically impossible. The message that Israel is delivering to the Palestinians is that it does not need and does not expect any cooperation.
Forgoing the negotiating process is a certain way of missing the chance that the disengagement plan will jumpstart a process of settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--an opportunity that was enhanced by the death of Arafat and the changes in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Launching a negotiating process would mean embarking on a difficult path with no certain results. But it would take advantage of this opportunity, while at the same time retaining the possibility of going back to unilateralism in case of failure.- Published 8/8/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Brigadier General (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, and a veteran of Israeli-Palestinian track I negotiations and track II discussions.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No "concessions" intended
by Hisham Ahmed
One of the reasons Benjamin Netanyahu cited when he tendered his resignation on August 7 was that he did not want to be a party to what he called "concessions" to the Palestinian side without Israel getting anything in return.
Indeed, on the surface it might seem strange that an Israeli prime minister should evacuate settlements unilaterally without securing anything from the Palestinian Authority in negotiations.
But that would certainly be a superficial interpretation of why Ariel Sharon chose to withdraw from settlements unilaterally. On the contrary, Sharon, it seems, is intent on going down in history as the only modern-day Israeli prime minister, a list that includes Netanyahu, who has consistently and utterly refused to negotiate with the Palestinian side--whether the Palestinian Authority or the PLO. In this way, he is unique among Israeli leaders since the Oslo Accords were signed.
In fact, the reasons behind Sharon creating a unilateral disengagement plan are manifold, but none has anything to do with "concessions".
First and foremost, Sharon, as has been previously acknowledged by some of his closest aides, intends to freeze the peace process rather than inject it with new life. Withdrawing from four small settlements in the northern West Bank and all settlements in the Gaza Strip allows him time to do what he feels is most strategically in Israel's long-term interest: to tighten his grip on the West Bank and tighten the noose around Jerusalem.
Withdrawing from the Gaza Strip is a price worth paying for this, because holding on to settlements there is too costly, both in military and in financial terms, and because politically the Strip holds no great sway in Israeli public affections.
In addition, acting unilaterally leaves him in no debt to the PA. He is under no obligation to follow up with anything else anywhere else, and he is free to act as he sees fit and when he chooses to do so vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
He also achieves another strategic objective with a unilateral plan, namely that of keeping the Palestinians on their toes and at odds with each other. He is leaving an area of Palestine that is a stronghold of the opposition to the PA and in which the PA is at its weakest. Sharon would like to see nothing more than intra-Palestinian fighting, and withholding information about the withdrawal serves this end. As differences deepen between the PA and various factions over what might or might not happen, and what to do in each case, chances increase that a full-scale civil war will break out.
Internally, Sharon is sending a strong message to Israeli hardliners. A unilateral plan is not a concession, and does not come about after negotiating with what he for a long time now has called "terrorists". In other words, Sharon is telling right-wingers that what he does he does solely for Israel and in Israel's interests.
But Sharon wants to have his cake and eat it. Acting unilaterally has a large public relations element to it. By withdrawing he is sending the message to the international community and especially the US that even without "concessions" from the Palestinian side--e.g., collecting arms--he is still prepared to implement part of the roadmap. This way he refocuses international pressure on the Palestinian side, evident already in the enormous media attention devoted to how Palestinians will react to taking "control" over the Gaza Strip.
Furthermore, he can do so safe in the knowledge that, with a unilateral plan, he has not committed himself to any other part of the roadmap. Thus, he appears to be making tough choices for peace to the outside world, and, at the same time, acting solely in the interest of Israel to his own constituency.
Sharon has many reasons for acting unilaterally, but certainly not one of them is about giving anything free to the Palestinians, as his former finance minister suggested. As for Netanyahu, there is little but political opportunism in his decision to resign and garner favor with Israeli hardliners.- Published 8/8/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Hisham Ahmed is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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