Now that it has gained President George W. Bush's support, PM Ehud Olmert's plans for unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank face mainly internal Israeli obstacles. Yet nobody seems to understand where Israeli unilateralism came from. The different motives assigned to Olmert's plan by Israel's friends and neighbors and by some Israelis are really quite extraordinary in their variety.
Palestinians, many Europeans and Arabs and some Americans argue that Israel has adopted a unilateralist posture as essentially a land-grab scheme. By dismantling settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank mountain heartland, it plans to consolidate its grip on the settlement blocs near the green line. The security fence, usually called an "apartheid wall" by these circles, is cited as the proof: most of it has been or is being built on West Bank land, beyond the 1967 armistice line (green line).
Some Israelis on the Zionist left see Olmert's plan as a cop-out: an attempt to evade the bilateral negotiations that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) offers and that could lead to a viable peace, essentially because Olmert and the Israeli center don't want to pay the price for peace in terms of territory. Other Israelis, on the right, either oppose any withdrawal whatsoever or argue that the price Israel is paying for its unilateral withdrawals in terms of territory, settler hardship and encouragement of Hamas triumphalism is in no way justified by the benefits achieved.
Prime ministers Sharon and Olmert have not always made the task of understanding unilateralism easy. Sharon basically offered the public little by way of explanation beyond a telegraphic list of "economic, security, political and demographic benefits". Olmert has been more explicit, but still speaks in code ("lifeline for Zionism") and has been unable to find an intelligent English term for his policy: first disengagement became convergence; now it is "realignment", an even more confusing description.
Yet a majority of Israelis support unilateralism, and they are not confused. Why? Here is my explanation.
Around 2000-2001, something changed in Israelis' perception of their relationship with the Palestinians. The failure at Camp David and ensuing intifada were understood as a Palestinian statement of intransigence regarding the key "existential" issues, the right of return of the 1948 refugees and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem: "existential", because these issues were understood as tests of Palestinian readiness to coexist with a Jewish state. When the suicide bombings became a mass campaign, Israelis concluded that an entire society was embracing and glorifying death--its own death along with that of Israeli civilians--as its way of pursuing the conflict. Death as a strategy also embodies an existential dimension. A majority of Israelis reasoned that, whether by murder or through negotiations, the Palestinian leadership was plotting our destruction as a sovereign Jewish entity. This changed the rules of the game.
Since 2002 this same majority, overcoming a natural reticence about building ugly fences and walls the length of the land, has supported a security barrier to keep out suicide bombers, along with the dismantling of outlying settlements to facilitate real separation from the Palestinians. Ehud Barak's campaign slogan of 2000, "they're there and we're here" has become a dictum of survival. The demographic threat has merged with the terrorist threat to boost the "Jewish, democratic state" slogan. Remaining a Jewish state, which requires removing settlements that generate a destructive mix of the two populations based on a dangerous messianism, has become Israel's existential security goal. In Israeli eyes, the fence and settlement removal move us away from apartheid rather than toward it.
Our friends abroad ask the new Israeli mainstream what sort of Palestinian partner we are seeking for a solution in view of our reservations (albeit for very different reasons) concerning both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas as partners. We reply, or would reply if we allowed ourselves to be completely candid, that when confronted with a choice between a good man incapable of exercising authority and a movement that seeks our destruction, we no longer seek a partner. They ask how we can forego the "compensation" embodied in an agreed solution and we respond that extracting ourselves from the Palestinian embrace is far more important. In this sense, for many of its supporters the fence, which began as a security barrier and is now being coopted by Ehud Olmert as a unilateral, quasi-political border, is also taking on the dimensions of a fault line between civilizations.
I know there is a measure of exaggeration in this description. Most Israelis do understand that most Palestinians just want a decent life. Most of us would still eagerly embrace a negotiated two state solution if it seemed fair and respectful of Israel's Jewish character and left us capable of looking after our own security and identity.
But that's not the message we're getting from Gaza and Ramallah. More precisely, it's one of several contradictory messages. Palestinian polls indicate that more than half the public still supports the suicide bombings, even as it also supports a negotiated two-state solution, and even as it insists on the right of return (which contradicts a two-state solution) and chooses Hamas to govern it. Palestinians regularly gripe about the fence and Israeli unilateralism without evincing the slightest recognition that the bombings, coupled with the perception that they seek to undermine Israel's Jewish character, brought this upon them. This is sad, but perhaps not surprising in view of the Palestinian historical record of strategic mistakes.
Moderate Palestinians are tragically wrong in seeing Israeli unilateralism as an unmitigated disaster. The settlement blocs remaining in Israeli hands are little different from what Barak, Yasser Arafat and President Bill Clinton nearly agreed on six years ago at Camp David. The fence, which is constantly being moved toward the green line, embraces no more than nine percent of the West Bank. Even if Olmert somehow thought he could persuade the world to recognize his "realignment" border fence as final and official, he now acknowledges that it will be little more than the starting point for future negotiations. Nor is Israel trying to annex the Jordan Valley--merely retain it as a security zone and future bargaining card. So much for the "land grab" theory.
Meanwhile, Palestinians will witness the removal of dozens of hated settlements and the checkpoints and roadblocks that accompany them, without being asked for a quid pro quo. In this way, Olmert's plan does indeed keep alive the possibility of negotiating a two-state solution once Palestinians achieve stability under a moderate and effective leadership. Surely this is an improvement on the current situation.
We Israelis have also made our share of critical mistakes that have undoubtedly contributed to the situation that produced unilateralism. We may well have misread and misunderstood some of the motives for Palestinian actions and positions. Yet I would argue that, on the whole, our unilateralist reaction to the events of the past five years is a healthy one.- Published 29/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Compared to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Ehud Olmert's unilateral plan for parts of the West Bank is attracting much fiercer criticism.
Two important messages preceded Olmert to Washington on his recent trip there, one from Jordan's King Abdullah, the other from Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Both strongly urged the American administration to discourage Olmert from carrying out his plans.
The fears of Arab leaders are easy to understand. The Israeli disengagement from Gaza has been followed by draconian Israeli policies and practices that are totally isolating Gaza from the West Bank by almost completely ending any kind of movement or connection between the two parts of what should become one state.
This, however, has been coupled with unusual Israeli flexibility in allowing the maximum access possible for persons, though not goods, from Gaza to the outside world through Egypt. This is equivalent to passing a hot potato to the Egyptians.
Meanwhile, Israeli practices in the West Bank, including the building of the wall partially inside Palestinian land, the division of the West Bank into isolated areas and other collective punishments, have rendered the economic situation in the West Bank so bad that a repeat of the situation in 2001 and 2002 when many Palestinians tried to leave the West Bank to Jordan is ever more likely.
The combination of "disengaging" Gaza from the West Bank and the economic sanctions and collective measures in the West Bank are alarming the Jordanian leadership to the extent that King Abdullah felt impelled to ask Bush to interfere against these unilateral steps of the Israeli government.
In addition, Israeli Minister of Defense Amir Peretz officially approved the expansion of the jurisdictions of four major settlements, three of which are near Jerusalem and one in the Jordan Valley, at the expense of the land of Palestinians living next door. That expansion order, which was issued this month, came at a time when Israeli officials had intensified public statements regarding evacuating other settlements. It is clear to Palestinians that these unilateral moves are about reorganizing the occupation in a way that simply makes it more comfortable to the occupier and more harmful to the occupied.
The way Olmert has presented the wall project, furthermore, is more insidious than the way Sharon was presenting it. Sharon justified the wall as a security measure. Olmert is bargaining with the American administration over the possibility of an Israeli withdrawal to the wall to eventually make the US administration recognize the route of the wall as the final borders of Israel.
In other words, the wall, which was previously presented as a security measure, is now presented as a possible final political border.
However, this position, combined with an attempt to alleviate Arab fears, only contributed to US President George W. Bush's negative response to Olmert's request for Washington to recognize his next withdrawal as the final settlement on borders. Instead Bush encouraged Olmert to start talks with Abbas.
The recent political developments inside Palestine--the internal tensions and confrontations and President Mahmoud Abbas' call for a political referendum, which has served to regain him the political initiative--should encourage the US to invite the parties back to the negotiating table on the basis of the roadmap.
Israeli unilateralism has not brought us any nearer peace. It has only brought Hamas to power.- Published 29/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
An illogical reaction to disappointment with the Palestinians
by Yaakov Amidror
The government of Israel's unilateral plans should be of great concern to anyone still dreaming of some sort of agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. They should worry anyone concerned with the ongoing momentum of the radical Islamic wave. And they should preoccupy anyone who understands that Israel must not allow itself to be perceived as having folded under the pressure of terrorism.
Of course it behooves us to recall that the government's actions reflect the heavy disappointment felt by many Israelis as a result of the Oslo process, which was predicated on the assumption that there is someone ready to compromise on the Palestinian side. Bitter experience has taught us that you cannot rely on the Palestinians, that no agreement is ever fully carried out by them, that Arafat was a terrorist incapable of evolving into the leader of an orderly state, that he was personally corrupt and that his followers plundered the Palestinian treasury and international aid money.
Ultimately, the Palestinians democratically elected a terrorist government. No one compelled them to. Now the naive Israelis who believed in them look forlornly and in shock upon a terrorist state.
All these events generated a situation in which the government of Israel confronted two options, both bad. The first would have been to maintain the status quo: to fight terrorism in Judea and Samaria relatively successfully, absorb the Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot and Ashkelon, pray that standard long-range katyushas with heavy payloads are not fired from the Gaza Strip, and hope the Palestinians get smart in the face of international pressure and that Hamas' power declines. Then and only then would it be possible to try to advance in accordance with the roadmap, on the assumption that the Palestinians had elected a responsible non-terrorist leadership.
The second option is the unilateral one. In order to prevent terrorism and illegal immigration to its territory, Israel removes the settlements located to the east of the fence, strengthens the settlement blocs to the west of the fence, allows the Israel Defense Forces to operate freely to the east of the fence, as it does today, and does not permit a single Palestinian to enter its territory. In the long term, the new line would be Israel's point of departure for negotiations, on the understanding that it satisfies the criteria laid down by President George W. Bush in his letter to PM Ariel Sharon, hence more or less constitutes the state of Israel's final eastern border.
This line would constitute a heavy blow for Palestinians. It would leave them less territory to control than what PM Ehud Barak offered them before the terrorism war, and would be easier for Israel to defend. Moreover, completion of the fence, thereby preventing civilian passage across the line, would engender genuine difficulties in Palestinians' daily lives, in their economy and for those seeking to enter Israel illegally. It would be harder to work in Israel, but also harder to carry out terrorist attacks. In order to strike at Israel, Palestinians would have to develop in Judea and Samaria the rocket-firing capabilities that they have in Gaza. But if the IDF can operate freely inside Palestinian territory this would be no easier than it is today.
Yet for Israel, too, unilateral withdrawal would be a serious blow: thousands of Jews would be expelled from their homes in return for nothing, in a step that advances neither a political settlement nor peace and quiet. Indeed, the move would be perceived, like the withdrawal from Gaza, as yet another success for the terrorists and one more confirmation of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah's argument that Israel is in the process of retreating in the face of continuing terrorism. It would provide yet more wind in the sails of the terrorists.
Moreover, it is likely that the world, and particularly Europe, would not recognize Israel's line of withdrawal as a legitimate border for ending the conflict. Accordingly, Israel would negotiate at some point in the future from a position of weakness, having foregone the territories it could have offered the Palestinians in return for peace--the strategic territories it now contemplates withdrawing from unilaterally.
This analysis points to the only party to benefit from unilateral withdrawal: the terrorists, who would be able to wage their terrorist war from a stronger position and with high morale in view of their successes. Ostensibly, then, the strong support for such a move in Israel is bereft of logic. Yet, in the atmosphere of bitter disappointment with the Palestinians after Oslo, many decisions are being made in Israel out of despair. The leading question is no longer what's good for Israel, but rather, what step would harm Israel the least.
At a minimum, we must make certain--and we must hope--that a unilateral step, if carried out, will provide the necessary freedom of maneuver to the IDF to deploy and act as before, indeed, even more aggressively. Only in this way can we fight the terrorism that will emerge like mushrooms after a rain. Hopefully we'll devote some thought to this in advance, and not concede our advantage at the moment of truth. - Published 29/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror was head of the Assessment and Production Division of IDF Intelligence, military secretary to the Minister of Defense, and head of the National Defense College. He is currently vice president of an academic think tank in Jerusalem.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Israeli unilateralism is not new
an interview with Ali Jarbawi
bitterlemons: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has just been in Washington to, among other things, discuss his unilateral plan for the West Bank. What results do you think he achieved?
Jarbawi: First of all, this plan is not new. This is a continuation of [former Israeli prime ministers] Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon's thinking. It has been around for many years.
The Americans know that Sharon started activating the whole thing with the wall and by leaving Gaza. All of these events are part of the same plan. Olmert wanted not approval, but an American blessing. I think he achieved that.
bitterlemons: But couldn't it be argued that Sharon already got that blessing in 2004 with his exchange of letters with US President George W. Bush?
Jarbawi: Sure, but this is a reaffirmation. Olmert is going to continue with the plan. The cantonization of the West Bank, the wall and the closure of the Jordan Valley are all steps in this direction. The only thing Bush asked Olmert to do was to try and negotiate with the Palestinians.
bitterlemons: But, in this scenario, negotiate what?
Jarbawi: The Americans, by asking Olmert to wait a little and try to negotiate, are trying to sabotage Hamas' government by telling the Palestinians that there is a venue for negotiations but that Israel is not going to wait forever.
The Americans are putting pressure on the Palestinians, and we've already seen the result: the proposed referendum. The immediate result of what happened in Washington is that the impression has been created that Palestinians might have a venue for negotiations, Hamas is blocking that, so Hamas must be removed.
bitterlemons: If Washington is trying to say that there is a venue for negotiations and at the same time is giving its blessing to Olmert, then surely there isn't really a venue for negotiations?
Jarbawi: Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made that clear. Olmert was crude about it. He in effect said 'either I'll have a Palestinian partner to agree to what I want, or I'll implement it unilaterally.' Livni was subtler. She said Israel would finish the wall but the route might change according to negotiations.
bitterlemons: This referendum has in effect become a referendum on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. Considering that such a state has not been offered Palestinians, is this an effective way of trying to put the ball back in Israel's court?
Jarbawi: It depends. If Hamas agrees to the referendum, you might argue that Israeli unilateralism would have to end because there would unquestionably be a Palestinian partner. Hamas could grasp this opportunity to climb down from its positions and then Israel might come under scrutiny and pressure from the international community.
But this is not going to happen. Hamas is not going to accept.
bitterlemons: So, you are saying that in theory, the referendum is a good idea?
Jarbawi: If Hamas accepts, it's an option. But this is unlikely. More likely this referendum will be used to score points off Hamas. When there is a future showdown between President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, when it comes to the point Abbas tries to remove the government, Abbas will use this referendum as a pretext.
bitterlemons: What is the Israeli position regarding negotiations?
Jarbawi: Israel will use negotiations as a cover to implement what it wants on the ground.
bitterlemons: In other words, Israel will not negotiate in good faith?
Jarbawi: Of course not. Remember what Shamir said at the beginning of the Madrid talks. If Israel negotiates in good faith it cannot implement steps on the ground that it wants. On the ground, Israel is putting facts on the ground--the settlements, settler by-pass roads, the wall--that mean there is nothing to negotiate about.
What Israel is trying to do now is to evade a quarrel with the Americans over the two-state solution after Bush endorsed it. Israel is saying it agrees to the roadmap, but it is going to shape that solution on the ground according to its own requirements.
bitterlemons: What are the consequences should Israel go ahead and set its own borders?
Jarbawi: That depends on the Palestinians and how the world will look at such Israeli steps. If the world at large considers that these steps are for Israel's security and is not convinced there is a Palestinian partner, it will be easier for Israel. If the world finds that there is a Palestinian partner and Palestinians are willing to negotiate, if negotiations are undertaken in good faith, it will be harder for Israel.
bitterlemons: Where is the ball right now?
Jarbawi: I think Palestinians in recent years have been faced with unrelenting action from Israel, supported by the rest of the world, especially the Americans. We have been reacting. We have to act.
bitterlemons: And this referendum is potentially a good idea?
Jarbawi: If there is agreement on it between Fateh and Hamas it might be a good way to reach internal consensus. But I'm afraid this will not happen, and if there is no agreement between Fateh and Hamas, it will be a bad idea and could push Palestinians closer to an internal confrontation.- Published 29/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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