If a tree falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Albert Einstein is reported to have asked his fellow physicist and friend Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, whether he realistically believed that ‘the moon does not exist if nobody is looking at it.’ To this Bohr replied that the riddle is an infallible conjecture, one that cannot be either proved or disproved because no matter what you perceive, neither man would be able to prove that the moon does indeed exist.
So the question I will begin to dissect here, is whether peace can be created without a peace agreement, without a negotiating partner – Can an intractable conflict between two peoples be solved by one party acting without the other? Does it really take two to tango? To be more specific, does Israel need a Palestinian organization as a negotiating partner to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Unilateralism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
I first began to understand the concept of unilateralism in April of 2013, at the INSS (Institute for National Security Studies) 6th Annual International Conference on Security Challenges of the 21st Century – Creative Ideas for Israel’s Changing Strategic Environment. One of my professors, Gilead Sher, presented his recommendations on the preferred course of action regarding “the Palestinian issue”, from the perspective of an extremely experienced Israeli attorney, who served as Chief of Staff and Policy Coordinator to Israel’s former Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak. In that capacity he acted as Israel’s co-chief peace negotiator in 1999-2001, at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and the Taba Summit in 2001, as well as in extensive rounds of covert negotiations with the Palestinians. As head of the INSS team and co-chairman of Blue White Future (a non-partisan political movement whose aim is to keep Israel Jewish and Democratic), Gilead Sher opened the panel up with a simple outline of what he and his team call unilateral steps to delineate West Bank borders with the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority; however, the plan also encourages Israel to disengage with or without an agreement, with U.S. support, gradually, and preferably (note, not necessarily) coordinated with the Palestinians.
As a lawyer, I was a bit surprised that my teacher was recommending the state of Israel to make peace-related moves concerning the Palestinians without a legally drawn up writing or agreement. The first thing that came my mind was Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement Plan of the Gaza Strip from 2005 and its unexpected results, which created a power vacuum only to be filled by a militant, faction of the Islamic Brotherhood – Hamas. The peace-intended incentive for withdrawing Israeli forces ultimately led to more violence. What bothered me most about Sher’s proposal was that it seemed arrogant, on the Israeli, occupier side, which can be perceived in the international community as blatant cruelty. How can a state actor create peace with a non-state actor by making moves outside the legal confines of negotiations, an agreement, and assurances on both sides that peace will be upheld?
Two months later, I think unilateral Israeli moves are the only “rational” option out there, “rational” being a very legal term indeed.
The Israeli public, from what I can see, does not really care about starting negotiations with Palestinians any time soon. Life is more or less good, the economy is not doing so well and there are many protests about Yair Lapid’s budget cuts but no one I talk to seems to care about the HOW of solving the conflict. Even my more politically active, left-leaning colleagues, who continuously challenge the Israeli government for their discrimination and unfair treatment of the Palestinians both outside of Israel (as an occupying force) and the Israeli-Arabs living inside of the fuzzy 1967 green line, don’t discuss logical, rational steps for ending the conflict, but they sure do throw around the word “occupation” a whole lot and deeply care about the future of this country and how human rights are being upheld. They are not happy with the status-quo and are extremely vocal about it, but they also don’t offer options of how to make a realistic change. The public sentiment seems to be either that of frustration and anger towards the malaise of the state of affairs, or complete ignorance/indifference of it, choosing to instead complain about the humidity or traffic.
In this atmosphere of negative criticism and ambivalence, the concept of unilateralism is refreshing because it’s an actual plan, not just activism for protest’s sake. A proposal for Israel to make steps towards ending the conflict while staying true to the Zionist and democratic character of the Jewish state, created by people who were on the field, in the negotiating room until 5AM with then U.S. President Clinton, Bush’s Roadmap, Begin, Rabin, Barak, Olmert, and Sharon; lawyers, government officials, extremely knowledgeable people on both sides of the divide, who probably felt an inch away from peace before it all collapsed. They probably felt the frustrations more than anyone else; they backed a leader with information, research, educated responses, and for what? An Interim Period that lasts 20 years? Status quo that solidifies Israel as an occupying state power backed the Western, Democratic world? But instead of complaining about the Palestinian insistence on reiterating their Nakba narrative, about the Holocaust, about Israel’s security issues and their fear of terrorism, they came up with a plan. A challenging one that is not accepted by the public at large, but it’s a decisive step, which always sounds radical, but UNILATERAL moves actually make sense if you break it down.
In a 2012 op-ed for the New York Times, Ami Ayalon, Orni Petrushka and Gilead Sher urge that just because a return to the negotiating table seems unlikely any time soon – because of a lack of trust on both Israeli and Palestinian sides –that does not mean the status quo must be frozen in place.
“Israel can and must take constructive steps to advance the reality of two states based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps – regardless of whether Palestinian leaders have agreed to accept it. Through a series of unilateral actions, gradual but tangible changes could begin to transform the situation on the ground.”
The writers stress that of course an agreement with Palestinians is preferable, but emphasize that their leadership is not strong enough and the appropriate state infrastructure (including public sentiment) in the West Bank is not ready for a final status agreement. Therefore, Israel should take small, unilateral steps, with the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority, until the other side has a partner strong enough to uphold their end of a final agreement. This might sound condescending, like Israel is the big bully calling all the shots and pushing the Palestinians around yet again, but the truth of the matter is the Palestinian Authority (the State of Palestine – following their own unilateral move at the United Nations General Assembly in 2012), needs help to build up a self-reliable government, and Abbas is not currently equipped to lead his people into a permanent status of peace or something tangible on the ground.
Old and New Unilateralism
Sher’s team has been pushing the concept of Israeli unilateral moves for over a decade now, since the end of the Second Intifada and the realization that the Oslo Accords were not a success (see 2002 Policy Paper) and at least three years before PM Ariel Sharon disengaged from Gaza in 2005. In 2012, Sher admits that mistakes were made with Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza and Southern Lebanon (2000), but he is still a firm believer that unilateral moves are the only way to move forward, out of stalemate, and into a possible coexistence with Palestinians. The new unilateralism stresses cooperation with Palestinian authorities, not agreement.
“The decision to withdraw from both territories was correct (Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza 2005). In the first case, unilateral action legitimized Israel’s border in the north; in the second case, it mitigated Gaza’s growing demographic threat and the challenge that the Israel Defense Force’s presence posed to Israeli legitimacy. What was flawed about these past moves was how they were carried out” (Yadlin & Sher, March 18, 2013, “Unilateral Peace” Foreign Policy)
The government of Israel made four main errors during the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, resulting in the current situation of Gaza becoming a launching pad for rockets and missiles targeting Israel (Yadlin & Sher, 2013, Foreign Policy):
Not preceding the move with a generous peace offer to the Palestinians;
Leaving a corridor open to weapons smuggling into Gaza;
Completing the total evacuation of the territory without leaving bargaining chips for future negotiations; and
Failing to secure recognition of its significant and constructive concessions by not coordinating the move with the international community or the Palestinians.
Udi Dekel, head of the negotiations team with the Palestinians in the Annapolis Process under the Olmert government, says that when Hamas began taking power in Gaza, Fatah came to Israel and said it was time to do something about the increasing threat of Hamas but at the same time stressed that Fatah was not ready to take on responsibility in Gaza because they were not strong enough nor did they want to take Gaza, from their brothers, by the IDF rifle. To add more fuel to the fire, they didn’t want to continue negotiating with Israel about a permanent status agreement while their brothers were being killed in Gaza (lecture to Conflict Resolution course at TAU on May, 23, 2013). In this multi-faceted culture of peace, what options did Israel have but to disengage?
Dekel also added, when speaking about the Annapolis Process of 2007, that a bottom-up and top-down approach must be implemented at the same time, meaning negotiations, final status agreements, and implementation must be going on simultaneously. The Palestinians need to vent about the injustices their people have suffered; their narrative is extremely important to them. Dekel stressed that their rights have to be anchored first but the forward-moving process must also being going on at the same time. The formula before Annapolis was that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed – a huge mistake.
Annapolis did not lead to an agreement, as we all know; however, it is another example of why unilateral moves, before or during negotiations, is necessary. Hopefully, in the current deadpan state of affairs, unilateral moves will be the impetus for negotiations to start up again?
New Radical Unilateral Approach – Steps
Blue White Future’s Current Unilateral Plan: Israel should first and foremost declare a willingness to return to negotiations anytime and renounce all claims of sovereignty on areas east of the existing security barrier. Second, end all settlement construction east of the security barrier and in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. And third, create a plan to help 100,000 settlers who live east of the barrier to relocate within Israel’s recognized borders. All these moves, particularly those related to security, should be coordinated with the U.S., the international community, and the PA, thereby lending legitimacy to the process.
The assistance of a third-party security force (instead of a mediator) should be an international force, preferably not the United Nations, but perhaps NATO.
Specifically, this plan is different from Gaza because the IDF will remain in West Bank until the conflict is officially resolved with a final-status agreement, and Israel will not force settlers to leave until said agreement is reached. But the point of the approach is that preparations should begin as soon as possible in order to get the public on board with peace, conflict resolution, and an end to this muddled definition of Zionism that Israelis (with no moderate left party to lend a rational voice) are happy to accept due to frustration, lack of trust, and a general meh attitude about the entire situation.
Unilateral moves will facilitate an eventual negotiated agreement:
“…to establish facts on the ground by beginning to create a two-state reality in the absence of an accord. Imperfect as it is, this plan would reduce tensions and build hope among both Israelis and Palestinians, so that they in turn would press their leaders to obtain a two-state solution.” (Ayalon, Petruschka, Sher, 2012, Peace without Partners, New York Times Opinion)
Palestinian Unilateral Moves – the UN Statehood Bid
On November 29, 2012, immediately following Operation Pillar of Defense, the PLO under the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, unilaterally requested a United Nations vote on international recognition of Palestine as a “non-member state” (“permanent observer”) of the United Nations, resuming a statehood initiative that began in 2011 (Sher & Yadlin, Mahmoud Abbas’ UN Gambit will not Bring Peace, INSS Insight No. 388, November 27, 2012). Palestine, was acting alone, without cooperation of Israel and Israel in turn voted nay.
There is much international and local criticism on the Palestinian UN bid, and in general unilateral moves, as being in plain legal contradiction to the Oslo Interim Agreement. Also, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, created by the Oslo Accords in 1995, could result from the UN bid thus leading to yet another power vacuum on both sides of the divide. In addition, if Palestine becomes a state there might be a cancellation of the UNRWA mandate, which could worsen the situation for Palestinian refugees living in UNRWA refugee camps. The severe refugee situation would be placed into the hands of a Palestinian Authority state government that is ill-equipped to take on such a complicated issue without agreed terms with Israel about the right-of-return. Moreover, what about the Palestinian Diaspora? A State of Palestine would not be able to provide or represent Palestinians living outside of the state, thus leaving many displaces people outside its borders out in the cold of Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Sher argues that the PA should have given Israel a heads up about the bid, discussed it with them and then, he claims, Israel would have voted “yes”. Without the coordination, the unilateral move will do more harm than good and not lead to a resolution of the conflict. It’s in Israel’s interest to support a Palestinian state, but cooperation from both sides is needed. Similarly, Sher criticizes the 2005 Gaza Disengagement as a unilateral move without partner cooperation, thus creating more obstacles to a final resolution to peace.
Israel’s Forefathers’ and Zionism
Blue White Future is devoted to keeping Israel democratic and Jewish and Sher claims that Unilateralism is, above all, a plan to keep Zionism alive – the Zionism that the state’s founders based Israel on, not Netanyahu’s Zionism or what it has come to mean today.
Naftali Bennett and Gilead Sher have been speaking for two years now about their differing opinions on the peace process, after Bennett approached Sher and told him that his proposals were dangerous. After many disagreements and conversations, at the end of the day (according to Sher) they both realized that they have more in common than they originally thought. The common denominator between them is that they want to keep Israel Jewish and democratic and Zionism as the ideology behind it. Where they differ is how to implement Zionism.
Currently, Israel rules over another group of people and not as equal citizens. Palestinians are an occupied people and Israel is the occupying force, no one can disagree with this. This status quo situation has been going on for decades and these are not in line with the ideals of Zionism’s forefathers and stands in contradiction to Jewish, democratic principles.
Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement Plan was undemocratic because he did not speak with the settlers in Gaza, whom he was uprooting. The unilateral disengagement of the West Bank that Sher is proposing will involve and prepare the settlers, and more importantly, will not pull out until the public is more comfortable with the idea, or at least feel like they had some kind of say.
At the end of the day unilateralism is a scary option because it is an uncertain one, but it is better than the alternatives of war or continuous stalemate and more frustrations getting to the boiling point. “Unilateralism can only be a default option not the leading strategic tactic. However, “unilateralism” is not a dirty word” (Sher, lecture May 30, 2013).
Footnote: Two days later, breaking news:
Economy minister says Israel must stop trying to solve the problem and ‘live with it;’ Netanyahu: My view is clear – I will seek a negotiated settlement with demilitarized Palestinian state; Chief Palestinian negotiator Erekat: Israel officially declared death of two-state solution.