What next?

As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stagnate, unilateralism rears its head.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Courtesy)
Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A month before the late April deadline, prospects for a breakthrough in Israel- Palestinian peace talks do not look good. Each side blames the other for the failure to get past square one and agree on terms of reference for further negotiations.
“The level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I’ve ever seen on both sides,” the American mediator John Kerry told a Senate panel in mid-March. “Neither believes the other is really serious. Neither believes the other is prepared to make some of the big choices that have to be made here,” the unbowed, but uncharacteristically downbeat secretary of state declared.
Given the looming impasse, the question is what next? Besides the blame game, what should the parties be doing to further their national interests?
Some in Israel are calling for unilateral moves to keep Israel Jewish and democratic, and head off the anticipated Palestinian “diplomatic intifada.” Others insist that Israel is strong enough diplomatically, economically and militarily to maintain the status quo indefinitely. That could prove a dangerous illusion.
According to US President Barack Obama, time is running out for Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. Moreover, in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg in early March, Obama argued that in the absence of an occupation-ending two-state deal with the Palestinians, it would become increasingly more difficult for the US to defend Israel in the international arena. And he added that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not believe in a two-state solution, he should spell out an alternative. “It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible,” the president argued.
In Netanyahu’s view, there can be no two-state deal unless it guarantees Israel’s security and promotes long-term stability.
So far, however, the Palestinians have not been ready to agree to a security package that meets Israel’s demands. Nor have they been prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which Netanyahu insists is a necessary condition for a stable, long-lasting peace.
Netanyahu’s most outspoken critics, like former justice minister Haim Ramon, argue that, deep down, the prime minister is actually opposed to the two-state idea, and therefore deliberately raises conditions, like recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, he knows the Palestinians can’t accept. According to Netanyahu, Palestinian recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is meant to ensure that a deal entails Palestinian acceptance that the conflict is over and that they have no further claims on Israel. Ramon counters that this is superfluous given Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s declared readiness to sign a treaty, including binding end of conflict and finality of claims clauses.
In mid-March, Kerry seemed to shift his ground on the Jewish state issue. Up till then he had indicated support for Netanyahu’s demand and seemed to be urging Abbas to go along with it. But in remarks to the House Foreign Relations Committee – ahead of a key Obama-Abbas meeting – he came down strongly against it being turned into a condition for progress.
“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state, and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” he maintained.
In other words, the Jewish state issue should not be an impediment to talks; but if serious talks ever do get going it could be raised as a key final-status demand, for which the Palestinians might receive a substantial quid pro quo – like a capital in East Jerusalem, for example.
In Abbas’s view, Netanyahu, given his hawkish coalition, is not a serious peace partner. He also maintains that the US has so far been too Israel-sided. Even though he doesn’t believe talks with Netanyahu have any chance, his tactic seems to be to show a moderate face to retain international goodwill and then, when the talks break down, to unleash a diplomatic, economic and legal campaign against Israel with maximum international support. This would include appeals to international institutions like the UN and the international courts at The Hague, campaigns to delegitimize Israel, and efforts to invigorate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Israeli politicians and analysts are already formulating strategies to nullify the impending diplomatic and economic offensive. In his Plan B, former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, calls for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from part of the West Bank, which he says would take the wind out of Palestinian delegitimization and BDS sails. Clearly intended as a counter to the Palestinian “Plan B,” Oren says his plan should only be implemented if the Palestinians initiate their diplomatic and economic offensive. Indeed, if adopted by the Israeli government, the very existence of an Israeli contingency Plan B could deter the Palestinians from going down the delegitimization road and serve as an incentive for them to negotiate seriously for a two-state solution, Oren insists.
Oren’s Plan B could well be a trial balloon for Netanyahu. When asked in early March about the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal, Netanyahu did not reject the idea out of hand, saying only that he hoped he didn’t “get there.”
In Oren’s view, if it comes down to it and Plan B is implemented, it would enhance Israel’s international situation and transform the conflict. In setting a new border, Israel would be creating a de facto two-state reality and turning what remains of the conflict into a border dispute. It would make clear to the Palestinians that if they come to the peace table, the borders could be readjusted, giving them a powerful incentive to negotiate.
OREN REFUSES to say where the new border would be drawn, ready only to outline general principles. It would keep most settlers in Israel, while reducing as far as possible Israeli control over Palestinians; the IDF would remain in “sensitive areas”; Jerusalem would remain united, unaffected by the new border.
To offset the bad name unilateralism acquired after the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Oren calls his plan “the Zionist option,” Israel, as it and the Zionist movement always have done, taking its fate into its own hands. “We do not outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making,” he asserts.
Oren is not alone. Former Netanyahu aide, Yoaz Hendel is reportedly working on a detailed plan for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank. The idea also has the backing of Amos Yadlin, the influential head of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Strategic Studies. Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, calls his own plan “coordinated unilateralism,” in that it would be coordinated as closely as possible with the Palestinians and the international community.
The idea would be to get major powers, specifically the US, Germany, Britain and France behind the unilateral idea, and then to withdraw from most of the West Bank, leaving 15 percent of the territory, including the Jordan Valley, in Israel’s hands. Israel would not withdraw from all the territory so that the Palestinians would still have an incentive to negotiate for territorial gains in an agreed two-state deal.
The most active group lobbying for unilateral withdrawal is Blue White Future, led by Gilead Sher, a former peace negotiator, ex-Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Ami Ayalon and Orni Petrushka, a high-tech entrepreneur. They call their program “constructive unilateralism” – that is unilateral moves that bring the parties closer to an eventual two-state solution. In the event of a breakdown in current peace talks, they call on the government to take the following steps:
• Declare that Israel has no claims to sovereignty beyond the West Bank separation barrier and the large settlements blocks.
• Prepare a national plan for the relocation of settlers from settlements east of the separation barrier.
• Freeze building in settlements east of the barrier and in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
• Gradually transfer areas east of the barrier to Palestinian control.
The IDF would remain in the West Bank as long as necessary to oversee the evacuation of settlers and establish a viable alternative security regime. Israel would state its readiness to renew negotiations on a twostate solution at any time.
For now the government is not ready to consider the unilateral option. For one, the American-mediated peace talks have not yet broken down. But perhaps more significantly, for government hawks, upbeat estimates of Israel’s overall security situation seem to outweigh fears of the potential damage a Palestinian diplomatic and economic intifada might do.
Defense establishment analyses insist that fallout from the “Arab Spring” has left Israel in a uniquely strong strategic position. In the north, Syria is embroiled in civil war and its chemical weapons are being dismantled; Hezbollah is caught up in Syrian strife; in the south, cooperation with Egypt is going through one of its better periods; Egypt has withdrawn support for Hamas in Gaza and smashed hundreds of its smuggling tunnels; the central front is quiet as negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, although barren, continue; Iran is trying to project a more positive image as it negotiates with the West. Moreover, Sunni states like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States share a deep aversion to the notion of a nuclear-armed Shi’ite Iran, and see Israel as a silent partner in preventing it. All this, the defense establishment argues, adds up to unprecedented strategic depth for Israel.
Government hawks see this as giving Israel breathing space on the Palestinian front too. But none of the above parameters are written in stone. Indeed, although Chief of Staff Benny Gantz warns of dangerous medium-term shifts in threat patterns, there is a worrying tinge of the smugness that preceded the 1973 Yom Kippur war. And, on the contrary, Israel might be better advised to use its current strategic advantages to negotiate a good deal with the Palestinians or take unilateral steps that could more firmly anchor its place in the region and deflect a potential storm of international criticism, if Israel fails to act and remains an occupying power.
As Obama put it in his Bloomberg interview: Netanyahu has an opportunity to take advantage of the potential realignment of interests in the region and “to solidify, to lock in, a democratic, Jewish state of Israel that is at peace with its neighbors...”
In the president’s view, some of the core conditions are favorable: In Netanyahu Israel has a prime minister who could carry the country; in Abbas there is a moderate Palestinian leader; and in the Obama Administration a committed US mediator ready to underwrite a deal.
April will be the month of decision for all concerned.