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Jewish Journal

One More Casualty in Crisis—Unilateralism

by Leslie Susser

July 27, 2006 | 8:00 pm

More than two weeks into the war in Lebanon, there is a growing consensus that one of the chief casualties will be Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Pundits on the right and left argue that the war in Lebanon and fighting with the Palestinians in Gaza prove that unilateralism doesn't work. They note that both previous unilateral pullbacks, from Lebanon in May 2000 and Gaza in August 2005, were followed by rocket attacks on Israeli civilians from the evacuated areas.

The same is bound to happen if Israel withdraws unilaterally from the West Bank without cast-iron security arrangements, pundits say.

But Olmert remains unmoved. Close aides say he is determined to pull out of the West Bank and set Israel's permanent borders by the end of his current term in 2010. One of the main reasons is demographic -- to ensure a democratic Israeli state with a clear Jewish majority.

The question is how to do it.

After the Lebanon and Gaza experiences -- sustained rocket attacks on Israel in the wake of unilateral pullouts -- will Olmert still want to adopt last summer's Gaza model of withdrawal without agreement, or will he seek a different formula, such as bilateral arrangements with moderate Palestinian leaders or the introduction of international forces to keep the peace after Israel pulls back? One of the most influential backers of the unilateral idea was journalist Ari Shavit of Ha'aretz, whose 2005 book, "Dividing the Land," attempted to explain the rationale of the idea. But now Shavit has become one of unilateralism's most outspoken critics.

Shavit's change of heart reflects widespread disillusionment in Israel with the unilateral approach. In mid-July, a day after the outbreak of hostilities in the North, Shavit published an article "The End of the Third Way," urging the government to come up with a new strategy.

In the article, Shavit argues that Israel has gone through three predominant policy phases since the 1967 Six-Day War, each undermined by an eruption of Arab violence. Initially, Shavit says, Israelis believed the Palestinian conflict could be maintained by occupation, then through a peace deal, and after that through unilateral separation.

But the occupation thesis was discredited by the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the peace process it generated exploded with the second intifada in 2000 and unilateralism has crashed against the violence in Gaza and Lebanon, which Shavit calls the "third intifada."

He concludes that "Israel is now desperately in need of a new diplomatic idea, a new strategic idea, a fourth way."

A number of ideas are coming to the fore:

  • An international force to keep the peace and oversee the transition to Palestinian statehood after Israeli withdrawal.

    The endgame in Lebanon envisages a multinational force to keep the peace and help the Lebanese government deploy forces in the South and disarm Hezbollah. If that happens and proves successful, analysts say the model could be extended to the West Bank and Gaza.

    There it could take the form of an international mandate responsible for the transition to Palestinian statehood. Its main tasks would be to police the cease-fire, help create a single Palestinian armed force and build democratic institutions.

    The main advantage is that it could provide the stability Israel and the Palestinians have been unable to achieve. The main disadvantage is that an international force could become a target of Palestinian terrorism. The idea of an international transitional mandate has been proposed before by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.

  • The establishment of a Palestinian mini-state with temporary borders through direct negotiations under American aegis between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

    The Americans would need to give both sides strong guarantees: To Israel that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved in the emerging Palestinian state, and to the Palestinians that the final border will closely approximate the pre-1967 boundary.

    The main advantage of this approach is that it would be easier to achieve than a full peace deal. The main disadvantages are that the Palestinians have opposed the idea because they fear temporary borders would become permanent; the Israelis suspect that Abbas, even if he signed an agreement, would not be able to deliver.

    The Israeli Foreign Ministry has set up a team to refine this approach.

  • Going back to the "Clinton parameters" of December 2000 for a final peace deal. Left-wingers argue that if the sides are able to begin negotiations on a mini-state they might as well aim for a full peace deal and a full-fledged Palestinian state. Terrorist organizations would be dismantled, the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and border arrangements would be made to prevent weapons smuggling.

    The trouble is that this is precisely the formula that failed so dramatically at Camp David six years ago, and the situation has deteriorated markedly since then.

  • Modified unilateralism. Israel's West Bank settlements would be dismantled but the army would remain to prevent Kassam rocket fire and other terror attacks.

    The main advantage is that Palestinian terrorists wouldn't be able to arm and act as freely as they would if the army pulls out. The main disadvantage is that Israeli occupation would continue, creating points of friction with Palestinians and costing Israel international goodwill.

    Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, is the main proponent of this approach.

  • A Palestinian arrangement in the context of a major regional shake-up. This would entail stability in Lebanon under an international umbrella, good neighborly relations between Israel and Lebanon, and possibly even detachment of Syria from the Iranian axis.

    This would depend on the degree to which Israel crushes Hezbollah's military power in the current conflict. Hezbollah's defeat would reverberate in the territories and could lead to a strategic reassessment by Hamas leaders, especially if the Syria-Iran axis also collapses.

    The main advantage is that conditions could be created for a final, comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The disadvantage is that so far, at least, there is little sign that this scenario is realistic.

It's clear that Olmert will have to adapt to the new post-war reality -- but it's still too early to gauge which fourth way," if any, he'll adopt.

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