Critical Currents: Unilateralism is dead

Talking is not a failsafe formula against aggression, but it is the only proven way to drastically reduce its likelihood

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
One year after the Gaza disengagement and one month into the second Lebanese war, there is a growing consensus on one central point: unilateralism has failed. Equally compelling - although perhaps less strikingly apparent - is the corollary of this adage: negotiations involving an Israeli withdrawal to internationally recognized boundaries are essential to Israel's legitimacy and crucial to its long-term security. The unilateral strategy was first applied in Lebanon, and will be buried there. This concept emerged six years ago, with the Israeli retreat to the blue line. It gathered strength in the wake of the collapse of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the second intifada later in that fateful summer of 2000. Unilateralism was the logical product of the new Israeli discourse, which has maintained that there is no credible Palestinian negotiating partner and that the gap between the parties is in any event so great that there is nothing to discuss. Israel, it follows, must go it alone: it should define its own interests and carry them out on its own. As the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence grew, unilateralism gathered momentum, gaining substantial currency in broad segments of the Israeli public. Its appeal lay in the alluring - if thoroughly misleading - idea that Israel has complete control over its destiny. Ariel Sharon not only embraced the underlying premises of unilateralism (summarily silencing critics on both the Right and the Left), he also translated them into action. The uncoordinated disengagement from Gaza was consequently an Israeli designed and executed affair. Its smooth implementation with broad international backing fueled the temptation to extend a similar approach to the West Bank. The establishment of Kadima gave unilateralism electoral impetus; construction of the separation wall endowed it with physical form. Barely six months ago, this notion - whether dubbed disengagement, convergence or realignment - had assumed hegemonic proportions. The lulling character of this mindset blinded too many to some of its immediate consequences: rising economic and political distress in the Palestinian territories, the reinforcement of fundamentalist movements, and the fragility of thehudna. This complacency was shaken following the Hamas victory in January, the resumption of rocket attacks on Israel, and the breakdown of order in the occupied territories. It was broken when Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and Israel embarked on its current Gaza offensive. All remaining illusions have been shattered after Hizbullah entered the fray. THE BANKRUPTCY of unilateralist notions should have been evident from the outset. Such a strategy is intrinsically arrogant. It presumes that Israel can dictate terms and alter realities without consulting those most affected by its decisions. It makes the Palestinians (and the Lebanese) invisible in every sense of the term. It purposely ignores their needs and aspirations. Its strong-armed attitude is, by definition, coercive. Even those wary of these obvious defects nevertheless underestimated the deleterious effects of the unilateral mentality. Politically, the Gaza pullback severely weakened Palestinian moderates - most notably Mahmoud Abbas - by rendering their appeal for negotiations meaningless. Since it was trumpeted as an exercise in conflict management and not in conflict resolution, it foreclosed Palestinian hopes for a just and dignified national existence. It trampled Palestinian dignity, evoking frustration and anger. Most seriously, the Gaza disengagement (like its Lebanese predecessor), by not transferring power in an orderly manner to a central authority capable of disbanding armed militias, sowed administrative chaos and bred anarchy. It therefore systematically played into the hands of extremists and glorified their destructive agenda. Although the aftershocks of unilateralism are everywhere apparent, the Lebanese and Palestinian situations diverge markedly. In the former case, Israel retreated to the international boundary. Its withdrawal won UN approval. As a result, its sovereign right to defend itself today is not being questioned (even if the manner it has chosen to do so is heavily criticized). Israel's moves in the occupied territories do not enjoy the same status; its ongoing military actions there do not have any international legitimacy. These distinctions are crucial. They underline the legal and practical significance of border demarcations between states and the sovereignty they accord. Most Israelis, however, take little comfort now in such nuances. Incessant bombardments and ongoing dislocations have eroded their sense of security. It is thus all too easy to overlook the most obvious - and promising - aspect of the present conundrum: the resilience and durability of Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The protection they afford is a direct outcome of negotiated agreements, confirmed by the delineation of firm boundaries. The lesson is clear: withdrawal, as many hardliners would have it, is not at issue. The question is how such a pullback is carried out, to what frontiers, and with what legal and international guarantees. Israel is learning, the hard way, that it does not exist in a vacuum: if it continues to act solely on its own and refuses to open communication channels, it imperils its very survival. Unilateralism is dead; territorial concessions as part of lasting and just agreements are not. While talking is not a failsafe formula against aggression, it is the only sane proven way to drastically reduce its likelihood. Perhaps out of the brutal rupture of the myth of total self-control it may yet be possible to adopt the logical alternative to one-sided measures and embark on a course leading first to a treaty with the Palestinians and then to a comprehensive peace with all Israel's neighbors.