The general elections that were also a referendum on the future boundaries of the State of Israel are over. So, too, is the semi-official hiatus in the Palestinian-Israeli political process. The challenge facing Ehud Olmert and his yet-to-be-determined government is daunting: how to capitalize on the mandate they received at the polls without falling into the pitfalls inherent in their own policy guidelines.
The paradoxes of unilateralism are neither new nor easily surmountable. Large portions of the Israeli public have been drawn to the notion - first aired by Ariel Sharon and now elaborated by his political creation Kadima - that Israel can control its own destiny by determining its shape by itself.
The appeal of the unilateral option has gained momentum following the Gaza pullback and has been reinforced in the wake of the Hamas victory. With no ready negotiating partner in sight, this logic goes, Israel must secure its continued existence through further withdrawals on the West Bank.
The reasons for the attractiveness of one-sided measures also help to explain their drawbacks. They operate in a space consciously devoid of Palestinians, they are coercive by definition, and they knowingly advocate conflict management to the detriment of conflict resolution. Above all, these steps, which purportedly relieve Israel of responsibility for Palestinian futures, do not address the issue of Palestinian sovereignty.
An Israeli pullback from the territories may mean that Israel is no longer present on the ground; it does not necessarily imply, in the absence of an internationally recognized Palestinian state, that the Palestinian Authority is in charge of the vacated areas.
To the contrary: the Gaza withdrawal created an anomaly with virtually no historical or comparative parallel. It was designed to absolve Israel of control without endowing the PA with legitimate power. Transferring this model to the West Bank will, with international collusion, extend this paradox geographically without confronting it substantively. The result will be the prolongation of violence in a situation of structural indeterminacy.
THE PALESTINIANS need not accede to such measures. They can refuse a truncated Palestinian state if this is thrust upon them without their consent. In the interim, to accentuate the ambiguity that comes with the lack of sovereignty, they can dismantle the Palestinian Authority (as some Fatah leaders have already suggested). Unilateralism without the establishment of a workable Palestinian state alongside Israel creates an insufferable power vacuum that cannot be sustained over time.
The difficulties intrinsic in unilateral disengagement (even if it comes under the somewhat misleading heading of convergence) can lead to a return to a rejectionist policy actively supported by some 40 percent of the Israeli electorate this week. Such an option assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved and that further territorial concessions are foolhardy. From this perspective, Israel's retention of the West Bank is not only inevitable, it is imperative.
A retreat, triggered by inaction, into what is effectively an ongoing default option is, frankly, frightening. Continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank threatens to transform the nature of the conflict from a national one into a religious-cultural confrontation which will make it truly intractable. Although some might have an interest in presenting the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as another instance of the clash of civilizations with an ever-expanding global reach, such a depiction is thoroughly self-defeating. The prospect of perpetual conflict is, for Israel, nothing short of a doomsday scenario.
THE SLIPPAGE of unilateralism into a rejectionist mode can be averted by the reassertion of the negotiation option. This is the preferred strategy of 73% of Palestinians and 76% of Israelis polled just a few days ago. It is advocated by both Labor and Meretz. It is still the position of the Quartet as detailed in the road map. As every other possibility leads to increasingly problematic impasses, the logic of a return to the table - with all the complications associated with the Hamas victory - becomes increasingly compelling. Even the greatest skeptics acknowledge that ultimately nothing positive will occur except by agreement.
The critical question facing the new government of Israel, then, is how to leverage the support for change into a real possibility for resolution. Signaling that it intends to act now in order to prevent a retreat into an increasingly dangerous deadlock is important. These policy tendencies must, however, be concretized. The composition of the new coalition (both the personal and party identity of its members) is one such indication.
Another will be the initial response to the Hamas-led government: leaving the door open for some dialogue (directly or indirectly, bilaterally or internationally) would be suggestive. And a willingness to back a major humanitarian effort to ameliorate the deteriorating conditions in Gaza and the West Bank can go a long way toward laying the groundwork for a climate of constructive engagement.
The post-election window is very narrow indeed. What is done in the next few days will set the tone for what can be achieved in the coming years. Tangible evidence of a commitment to change is essential now. This is the only way that the ambiguity of unilateralism may yet be parlayed into the probability of a just accord.
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