Not so long ago when Ariel Sharon was riding high as prime minister, “unilateralism” was the buzzword, the panacea for securing Israel’s long-term future as a Jewish and democratic state.

The thinking was that if Israel was to remain a democracy with a Jewish majority, it would have to end the occupation of over four million Palestinians and pull back to around the 1967 borders before it became engulfed in a one-state reality with a Palestinian majority. And since, in Sharon’s view, there was no Palestinian partner who could deliver a negotiated peace on the basis of two states for two peoples, Israel would have to withdraw unilaterally and create the two-state reality on its own. In Sharon’s grand scheme, “disengagement” from Gaza was to be a small first step, a prelude to a much larger pullback from the West Bank.

But the pullout from Gaza in August 2005 was followed by intensified rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, a violent Hamas takeover in Gaza and war three years later.

Sharon was felled by a massive stroke and within a year, after devastating rocket attacks from Lebanon, detailed plans for withdrawal from the West Bank were dropped by his successor, Ehud Olmert.

The perceived security risk coupled with poignant pictures of Gaza settlers being forcibly evacuated from their homes and repeated reports of their inept relocation had given unilateralism a bad name. For years no Israeli politician dared mention the word.

Now unilateralism is making what could be a significant comeback. With no movement on the peace front for over three years and turmoil in the Arab world making a breakthrough with the Palestinians even less likely, politicians and strategic thinkers are again talking about unilateral steps Israel needs to take to secure its Jewish and democratic future.

At the forefront of the debate is a highpowered advocacy and planning group called Blue White Future, founded by ex-Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) head Ami Ayalon, billionaire entrepreneur Orni Petruschka and attorney Gilead Sher, a former chief negotiator with the Palestinians. “Strategically, Sharon’s pullback from Gaza was the right decision, but the implementation couldn’t have been worse,” Sher tells The Jerusalem Report.

Avoiding mistakes

Sher, who with Petruschka is co-chairman of Blue White Future, proposes a new paradigm for achieving a two-state reality while avoiding the Gaza mistakes. He calls it “constructive unilateralism,” a string of independent moves, by Israelis or Palestinians, designed to bring the two-state reality closer, without compromising the chances of a negotiated peace at a later date.

As a measure of its seriousness, Blue White Future has assembled a formidable public council of like-minded economists, jurists, ex-generals, former diplomats, academics, authors, business people, observant Jews and peace activists. And, in a calculated effort to avoid a repetition of the Gaza failings, it has conducted a major study on mass settler relocation, prepared comprehensive draft legislation on settler compensation and resettlement, and opened a dialogue with the settler community.

Sher, 59, a reserve colonel who commanded an armored brigade and headed Ehud Barak’s bureau when he was prime minister (1999-2001), was born on Kibbutz Mahanayim in the Upper Galilee. On his mother’s side, he is a scion of a Sephardi family based in Jerusalem since 1620. His Russian-born paternal grandfather was killed protecting a convoy to Jerusalem in the first phase of Israel’s War of Independence.

During Barak’s tenure as prime minister, Sher played a leading role in negotiations with the Palestinians, mediated by then US President Bill Clinton. His book, Within Reach: The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001, is an account of their collective failure to cut a deal. Now retired from government service, Sher has returned to his law practice in an airy office high in a Tel Aviv skyscraper where large picture windows look out over the miniaturized city below, sprawling toward the sea.

On the wall is a memento of those heady days: a photograph of Sher and Clinton deep in one-on-one discussion in the Oval Office.

In the dulcet tones of a one-time radio news anchor, the dark, strong-featured Sher explains the urgent need for unilateral action now. Speaking slowly and choosing his words with lawyerly precision, he argues that Israel cannot afford to mark time just because meaningful peace talks are not possible now or in the foreseeable future.

“Of course, peace is a worthy goal,” he declares.

“But in the absence of a substantive peace dialogue, what do you do? Just sit and wait? Until when? Until we become a minority and live in what would be either an undemocratic or a non-Jewish society? There is no other conceivable outcome – unless we act to create the two-state reality,” he insists.

The Blue White Future master plan entails the relocation of all settlers east of the security barrier, estimated at around 100,000, to Israel proper. In one fell swoop, says Sher, this would create a two-state reality, Palestine to the east of the security barrier, Israel to the west, with the barrier as the de facto border between the two entities. Moreover, there would be pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel, if they want the final border moved closer to the 1967 lines. Otherwise, they would run the risk of the barrier, which eats into West Bank territory, becoming over time the internationally-recognized boundary between the two states.

Major lesson

One of the major lessons Blue White Future has taken from the Gaza experience is that, under its master plan, the IDF would not leave with the settlers. To prevent terrorists moving into a security vacuum as they did in Gaza, the IDF would stay put until such time as new security arrangements Israel feels comfortable with are in place. “The IDF should stay until either a multinational force moves in or Palestine police prove they are capable of taking over. Either way, the pullback of IDF forces would be gradual and performance-based,” Sher asserts.

Another key difference from the Gaza model is that the unilateral moves are not intended to replace negotiations, but rather to create a new reality in which fruitful peace talks are more likely, possibly even on a state to state basis. For example, in Sher’s view, had last year’s Palestinian bid for UN recog-nition been coordinated with Israel and the US, it could have been considered a form of constructive unilateralism, helping to promote a two-state reality and opening the way to state to state negotiations.

Most importantly, as opposed to Gaza, Sher insists that settlers who stand to be evacuated from their homes be given a square deal. This means meticulous preparation for the complex mass relocation move in the form of urban planning, special legislation and dialogue with the settlers themselves.

Blue White Future has already begun its own detailed staff work with two objectives in mind: To prove the feasibility of the mass relocation project and to lay a platform for this or any future government to build on.

Last year, they hired Urbanic, a leading urban-planning company in Ramat Gan, to survey housing opportunities for relocating settlers between Beersheba and Haifa, excluding Tel Aviv. It found sufficient land reserves and planned projects to supply four times the housing units that the 25,000 or so settler families marked for relocation would need. The survey took 10 months to complete and was supervised for Blue White Future by former national planning head Yonatan Golan.

Absorption capacity

“Now no one can say Israel can’t absorb 100,000 settlers,” says Sher. “Remember also that in the early 1990s, we took in over one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, 10 times the number of potential settler evacuees.”

The economic dimension of the relocation process is being handled in-house by Prof. Amir Barnea, one of Israel’s foremost experts on banking and financial assessment, Yarom Ariav, a former Finance Ministry director general and other top economists on the Blue White Future public council. They say the numbers are eminently doable. According to Barnea, the total cost would not exceed $10 billion, a sum, he says, that could be easily absorbed in the state budget over a few years.

Blue White Future has also drafted legislation, which includes clear guidelines for settler compensation, relocation and reabsorption. Built on a previous Knesset evacuation-compensation draft, it includes the reabsorption phase and is cast in the form of a legally binding commitment by the government to the settlers. “We believe there should be a legal safety net for the settlers, a law that is comprehensive and detailed enough for the conversation with them to be closed from day one, and not degenerate into a series of endless and largely impossible ad hoc procedures as was the case with Gaza,” says Sher.

The third aspect of Blue White Future’s shadow preparation is dialogue with the settlers, including some of the most radical settler rabbis and groups of young settler leaders. They have been discussing future visions of Israel, trying to locate common denominators. They are also trying to reach agreement on a mechanism for what both sides would consider a legitimate and binding democratic decision on the future of the territories: Would it be a referendum or a parliamentary vote? What kind of majority would be required? How would the question be phrased? Sher acknowledges that progress is slow, but not negligible. “Very slowly and with a great deal of prudence on both sides, we are approaching each other in a way that allows us to be just a phone call away. And that can’t be bad,” he says.

Of the 100,000 settlers living east of the barrier, Sher says between 27,000 to 30,000 actually want to be relocated pending a reasonable compensation, relocation, reabsorption package. He reckons that many more would join them, if the government were to signal that it sees no future east of the barrier.

With time running out, Sher calls on the government to do just that as part of an urgent five-point action plan. “First we propose a government statement that we have no claim whatsoever on land east of the fence or in Arab East Jerusalem. Second, stop construction in these territories. Third, start planning for the relocation of those 100,000 settlers. Fourth, enact a relocation, compensation and absorption law for these people. Finally, start talking to your settler constituents. Look them in the eye and tell them their mission is about to come to an end, and say ‘let’s talk about the future.’”

The chances of the Netanyahu government doing any of this are not high. The prime minister sets great store by “reciprocity” – acting only if you get something in return – the very opposite of unilateralism. His thinking is echoed by influential right-wing ministers, like Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon, who argue that Israel should sit tight until the Palestinians “come to their senses” and agree to negotiate. Ya’alon maintains that the status quo gives Israel something approaching the best of all possible worlds: security control, no need for disruptive mass settler relocation and Palestinians voting for Palestinian Authority institutions, not the Knesset.

But there are other voices. At a conference at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies in late May, Defense Minister Ehud Barak surprised his audience by suggesting that Israel might have to consider unilateral action. “We are living on borrowed time,” he declared, noting the growing delegitimization of Israel on the international stage and the danger of another Palestinian uprising. “We will crash into a wall and pay the price. People who are in a coma now will ask then how we didn’t see what was coming.”

Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima, is another who might pick up on the unilateralist model. His own plan for an interim settlement includes similar territorial elements and, in a meeting with Blue White Future leaders, seemed very receptive to their ideas.

Significantly, the constructive unilateralist plan seems to be gaining traction in Washington.

Sher says it touched chords on both Capitol Hill and in the Administration.

After November, Sher says he expects whoever is elected US president to take Israel-Palestine off the backburner and put it high up on the new administration’s list of foreign policy priorities. “They will come at us and we should be ready with a plan of our own they can buy into,” says Sher. He thinks constructive unilateralism could fit the bill, in that it offers the stability the US would like to see, consistent with a basic cornerstone of American foreign policy, a negotiated peace based on then-President Clinton’s peace plan of December 2000, known as “the Clinton parameters.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to Netanyahu.

Sher says so far all prime ministers since Rabin, except Netanyahu – Peres, Barak, Sharon and Olmert – have recognized the two-state model as essential for Israel’s future. “Netanyahu could follow through on his predecessors or he could sit and wait and bury the Zionist enterprise with his own hands. He holds all the cards. The question is, which ones will he play?”

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