Several dynamics hinder Israel's ability to conclude agreements with the Palestinians or to implement unilateral political moves. Terrorism, the weakness of the political systems, and the perception among Palestinians that time is working on their side compromise Israel's ability to reach agreements and push Israel toward unilateralism. But, at the same time, strengthened radical factions, international delegitimacy and principled objection undermine unilateralism and push Israel back to negotiations.
There is no silver bullet here, unfortunately. However, although contradictory on face value, unilateralism and negotiations can actually be complementary.
Political impasses are unstable. So is ours. Sooner or later, the volatile situation will erupt, and a new reality will be created. It may be a popular uprising across the West Bank, the collapse or dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, a bold international initiative imposed on Israel or a wave of violence that will bring Israel back to the Gaza-Egypt border or to the entire Gaza Strip. The common denominator of these scenarios is a significantly higher economic and political burden.
The perception on both sides is that Israel has a stronger interest in a withdrawal from the West Bank than the Palestinians do. PA President Mahmoud Abbas understands this and uses an all-or-nothing strategy to increase the pressure on Israel. The radical factions understand this, too, and work to undermine any Israeli withdrawal, whether through negotiations or unilaterally.
Hence, the Palestinians may be unable or unwilling to play their part in ending the "occupation" of their own people. Just as a critical mass of political support for withdrawal from the West Bank took hold in Israel, a critical mass of forces coalesced on the Palestinian side to prevent such withdrawal. This is a turning point, the significance of which cannot be overstated.
It means that Israel may be forced to control the Palestinian population against its own existential interest and will. For the forces that permanently resist the existence of Israel, the two-state solution can and should be rendered irrelevant. Their violent factions want Israel "occupying" to be able to fight Israel without compromising internal support and legitimacy. Their nonviolent factions are going for a political elimination of Israel through the one-person-one-vote agenda. Following recent events and with a combination of politics and violence, they may be in the position to do so.
Israel is in a strategic disadvantage during negotiations, despite its military and economic superiority. Counterintuitive as it may seem to some, Israel is the underdog here.
So what can Israel do? It must complement negotiations by cultivating a viable and credible unilateral option in order to reduce such Palestinian leverage. Israel has to be able and willing to end "occupation" unilaterally. The hybrid strategy of negotiation and unilateralism is essential for success.
Against this background, I argue that Israel's organizing logic should be to seek an end of "occupation" -- either de jure, by agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders, or de facto, by ending the control over the Palestinians in the West Bank, implementing the Ehud Olmert government's Convergence Plan to withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally and upgrading the political status of the Palestinian Authority to statehood.
Five Possible Strategic Ideas; Only One Viable
Israel has five possible strategic options vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
- The first is to seek to end the conflict and reach finality of claims via a permanent status agreement.
- The second is to end "occupation" de jure by an agreement with the PLO on a Palestinian state in provisional borders in most of the West Bank, as provided for in the roadmap peace plan.
- The third option is to end "occupation" de facto by implementing Prime Minister Olmert's Convergence Plan, based on the model of the Gaza Disengagement and the Rafah Agreement and to recognize the Palestinian Authority as a state.
- A fourth option may be to effectively separate from the Palestinians in the West Bank by withdrawing from most of the areas east of the fence, without changing their political status. This can be achieved by adjusting the Interim Agreement of September 1995 or by expanding the model that was created in the northern West Bank, following the disengagement from Gaza.
- Finally, as a fifth option, Israel may seek to stabilize the status quo.
Of the five, only one is viable.
Palestinian Address as a Precondition
The precondition for all these options is for the Palestinian Authority to be an "address" that can make decisions and implement them, particularly regarding the basic needs of the population and the restraint of terrorist activity.
At present, due to constitutional and political reasons, the establishment of a national unity government of Fatah and Hamas is an essential, albeit not necessarily sufficient, condition for stability.
Faced with the risk of rapid deterioration in the PA, Israel, and the United States may have to swallow the bitter pill and change their current policy, allowing such a unity government to govern, despite Hamas participation.
Furthermore, on the Palestinian side, only prospects for significant political progress may legitimize a clamp down on militants or a self-imposed cease fire by some of them.
What, Then, Is the Viable Option?
Any course of action should be politically viable and provide for strategic benefits to both sides. The relevant criteria for evaluating the options are: the potential for Israeli-Palestinian collaboration, prospects for international endorsement, the prevention of future military attacks by Palestinian militants and the prospects for promoting the end of control over the Palestinians and diminishing the threat of the one-state solution.
In that light, Option 1 -- ending the conflict by concluding a permanent status agreement -- is doomed to failure. Israel and the PLO are not ready to accept the Clinton parameters of December 2000 as the framework and point of departure for their future relations. Any negotiations now would lay bare the most sensitive issues on both sides. Hence, the weakness of both political systems would render prospects of success slim to null.
Option 4 -- establishing sustainable physical separation -- may seem attractive. However, this option will not mobilize Palestinian moderates and will certainly galvanize Palestinian radicals. On the Israeli side, this logic would require dismantling settlements with no political achievement.
The logic of consolidating the status quo unilaterally or through tacit or explicit understandings with the PA -- Option 5 -- is not viable for Israel or the Palestinians in the long run. It can only serve as means to a greater strategy.
Ending "occupation" de jure or de facto remains the most promising option. For both sides, it represents a significant improvement, albeit with a great compromise. Israel would end "occupation," which is an existential long-term threat, without achieving finality of claims or end of conflict.
For the Palestinians, this option would bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders, but would compromise Palestinian leverage over Israel on the outstanding issues, such as refugees or the holy sites in Jerusalem.
The political viability of seeking an end to "occupation" exists, despite opposition. In Israel, the potential benefits of ending "occupation" may engender political support, even in the aftermath of Lebanon and in the shadow of the Kassams. On the Palestinian side, significant forces in the Arab world and among Palestinians are in favor of establishing a Palestinian state in provisional borders as an interim arrangement.
Where does the international community fit in? In the aftermath of the Lebanon episode, the idea of introducing international forces into the conflict seems to have become the magic cure. It is not.
On the one hand, there is an international component to each of these options, either in the design, planning or implementation phase. On the other hand, a precondition for the introduction of international forces is clarity on the Israeli side, with regard to our national security objective and strategy. Until we have such clarity and a political outline that is agreed upon by the Palestinians, there is no prospect to fielding international troops as they would be doomed to failure.
Negotiate Ending 'Occupation' But Prepare to Go Unilateral
There is a way forward in the form of a hybrid. In the case of ending "occupation," it is relatively easy to outline such a strategy. On the one hand, Israel should negotiate an interim agreement on a Palestinian state in provisional borders, as provided for in the roadmap in the areas east of the security fence. At the same time, it must prepare to implement the Convergence Plan in the form of a unilateral withdrawal and upgrade the political status of the PA into statehood. By offering the carrot of a state through good faith negotiations, as well as waving the stick of unilateral withdrawal, Israel may be able to break the current impasse.
This hybrid would require close coordination with the United States, particularly regarding what would constitute good-faith negotiation, benchmarks for the failure of negotiation and, in the event of failure, guidelines for the unilateral strategy.
This strategy requires Israel and the United States to make some tough choices. First, Israel would have to change its current policy toward the prospects of a Palestinian national unity government and allow it to govern by granting access to budgets and some freedom of movement to its elected officials. Second, Israel has to determine the above mentioned benchmarks, which may mean that at some point, Israel's actions may compromise the position of Abbas and other Palestinian moderates, as Israel ceases to negotiate and begins to take unilateral action.
Despite its many weaknesses, at present a hybrid approach to end "occupation" seems the most viable option. The challenge is to transform this concept into policy.
Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Re'ut Institute, dedicated to providing real-time decision support to the Israeli government (www.reut-institute.org). He served as the secretary and coordinator of the Israeli delegation for the permanent status negotiations with the PLO under Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001).