Encountering Peace: No more unilateralism

The Geneva agreement proved that it was possible to reach agreement with the Palestinians on all of the issues in conflict.

Israeli flag hangs off pole in Migron 370 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli flag hangs off pole in Migron 370 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is hard to believe that serious politicians are once again talking about unilateral steps. Ehud Barak said that we should consider another unilateral withdrawal because we can’t negotiate with the Palestinians. Naftali Bennett says we should unilaterally annex Area C – more than 60 percent of the West Bank. Yoaz Hendel, a former senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, says we should unilaterally annex the settlement blocs.
Great. Brilliant. And then what? Please tell us. Didn’t we unilaterally withdrawal from Gaza? What did we get in return? Hamas. Yes, we had to get out of Gaza. Leaving was the right thing to do. We had no future occupying Gaza against the will of more than 1.5 million Palestinians, most of them refugees.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initiated the Israeli disengagement from Gaza to deflect increasing international attention from the non-official Geneva agreement reached by former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
The Geneva agreement proved that it was possible to reach agreement with the Palestinians on all of the issues in conflict. The Geneva negotiators included former senior military and intelligence people including a former chief of staff, and it was gaining wide public support throughout Israel’s mainstream.
Governments around the world were adding their support and even in the White House and the State Department there were words of praise for the agreement. That made Sharon nervous because he was not prepared to adopt the Geneva formula and withdraw from the West Bank, in which a Palestinian state would be established next to Israel.
Sharon came up with the idea of disengagement, and he was correct: it did take all international attention away from Geneva. The international community would seriously weigh in and the Quartet would send a special envoy and the whole world would focus on the miraculous event of General Ariel Sharon uprooting settlements in Gaza. Imagine that – the father of the settlement movement becomes the man who would uproot them from Gaza.
The international community allowed itself to imagine that Gaza would be the first step to be followed by additional withdrawals and settlement removal from the West Bank. But Sharon was playing a different game, and never exposed his cards.
In response to Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdrawal from Gaza the Palestinians created a disengagement executive. They put then-Gaza strong man Mohammed Dahlan in charge of the project. Dahlan created some 10 committees to plan for the Palestinian takeover of Gaza, believing that they would work in cooperation with similar committees established in Israel. Dahlan’s committees got to work diligently with international assistance.
Mahmoud Abbas pleaded to Sharon to coordinate the disengagement and to negotiate the proper transfer of the area to the PLO. With his usual sarcastic wit, Sharon’s response was: “Abbas is a chick with no feathers.” He told the Americans and James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank and special envoy for the disengagement process, that Abbas was not a partner.
Sharon was warned that if he did not properly coordinate the disengagement and work with Abbas and the PLO, the more extreme groups in Gaza would be empowered.
He didn’t seem to care.
I personally went to one of Sharon’s closest advisers and political allies and begged him to convince Sharon to work with Abbas on the disengagement. He told me if I joined the newly formed Kadima it would increase the chances Sharon would listen to me. I joined Kadima and still Sharon refused to listen. He then told me to forget it.
He told me Sharon believed that after the transfer of Gaza to the Palestinians, they would fail in governing Gaza and international pressure on Israel regarding the West Bank would be removed. How cunning.
James Wolfensohn and his team worked overtime to try and ensure success. Wolfensohn even raised some $15 million to purchase the very successful agriculture greenhouses from the Gush Katif settlers. There were about 500 hectares (some 1,235 acres) of greenhouses there prior to the disengagement. The settlers damaged about 50 hectares when they left. Palestinian vandals damaged about another 50 hectares before the Palestinian police intervened and stopped them. Some 400 hectares were left.
The Palestinian Authority created a management company and the same workers who worked for the settlers continued to work for the management company. The company went bankrupt after its first season. Why? Because after the withdrawal from Gaza, Israel closed the border and the produce rotted before going to market.
This was before Hamas was elected.
During the same period the Americans demanded that Israel sign the negotiated agreements on the Rafah crossing and Movement and Access in November 2005, but during the first 100 days after signing the agreements the border crossing was open only 17 days.
The successful Israeli disengagement from Gaza led to the successful Hamas takeover of Gaza. Who won the narrative on the Palestinian side of what led to Israel’s decision to withdrawal? Diplomacy and negotiations or the gun, the bombs and the armed struggle? Hamas won the narrative and it empowered them against the failures of the diplomatic process. The Palestinian street said: Israelis only understand the language of violence. The end result was obvious to anyone who understood anything about the Palestinian street and Palestinian politics.
I assure everyone that the proposals of Barak, Bennett and Hendel would be even more disastrous for Israel then the disengagement from Gaza. There is a way to end the conflict with the Palestinians. It is called negotiations.
And yes, it has been tried before and we have not yet reached an agreement for peace. That does not mean that it is not possible. Those historians who tell us the past proves the future actually have no more knowledge of the future than anyone else. Their argument against negotiating a permanent-status agreement has no validity.
Yes, it will be difficult, but it is not impossible.
Those who propose a long-term interim agreement, please explain what exactly have we had until now? We have had a 20-year interim agreement that was initially intended to be for five years only. There is no room and no time for another interim agreement. The time has come for the leaders to make decisions on the core issues. Negotiations can be successful, but it means making a decision that we will remain in negotiations, intensively, with dedication, commitment and political will to reach agreement with the other side. Negotiating with goodwill and integrity means that we do not walk out of negotiations after we tell the other side “this is the best offer you will get – take it or leave it” as we did in Camp David in 2000 and Olmert did in 2008.
We will not be able to protect Israel’s long-term interests by making unilateral moves, but rather via a negotiated agreement on two states for two peoples, putting an end to the conflict.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.