The Only Way Forward

How Unilateral Moves Can Help

12.13.12 4:00 PM ET

Several signs lately reinforce the conclusion that the direct negotiations paradigm for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict has failed and must be replaced. The recent U.N. vote accepting Palestine as a non-member state is one such sign: 138 states supported the Palestinians’ resolution, only 9 voted against it, including the United States (a prisoner of the old paradigm). Most states would not have voted for this resolution if they believed that direct negotiations is the practical approach for resolving the conflict on the basis of "two states for two people." Last week in these pages, Peter Beinart showed us another sign by reporting that the Obama administration will handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with “benign neglect” in its second term,“outsourcing the job of pressuring Israel to Europe." The “Obama administration’s failure to restart serious talks,” Beinart posits, “has gravely undermined” America’s ability to “broker a deal.”

Many of Israel’s leaders share in the old approach’s failure. They do not understand the effects of the Palestinian issue on Israel’s future. The heads of the ruling Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak coalition, for example, are trying to convince the Israeli public that "nothing has changed on the ground." However, everything changed. We must now understand that the international community will back every Palestinian move, even unilateral ones.

This failure proves that, without trust between the parties, no substantial progress can be made on the road to resolving this conflict. There must be other options. The alternative—a new paradigm—that the Israeli organization Blue White Future, which I co-founded, proposes is constructive unilateralism: each side taking unilateral steps that will not create obstacles for reaching a two-state solution, but which do not require trust. With this in mind, the U.N. upgrade did have silver lining for Israel: a Palestinian leader who declares that he does not believe in violence asked the world to acknowledge Palestine alongside Israel in a resolution which refers to the 1967 borders, and does not mention of the Right of Return. Most of the Israeli public can support this framework. Despite being undertaken against Israel's wishes, the move offered a solid foundation for channeling the process of resolving the conflict on the basis of "two states for two people" in constructive directions. The Israeli government must acknowledge the changed paradigm and integrate it into its strategic planning. So, too, must the Obama administration.

For the Israeli government, a new paradigm should begin with an understanding that its defeat at the U.N. constitutes a good opportunity to return to the negotiating table with the aim of creating a "two state" reality. Punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority, especially those undertaken by Israel following the U.N. vote, will not be viewed by the international community as constructive. Worse, they may push the Palestinians towards retaliatory measures, such as appealing to the International Criminal Court. Israel will pay a hefty price for escalating the diplomatic conflict, to the point where it will lose international support—maybe even American support. These steps will not lead to a democratic Jewish state, safe in its borders.

Instead, Israel must declare its willingness to return immediately and negotiate a border based on the principles of security, demography and territorial continuity. It must announce that in any future solution Israel will not maintain sovereignty over territories east of the security barrier. Simultaneously, Israel should initiate unilateral and constructive moves which include three main elements: an "Absorption, Voluntary Evacuation and Compensations" law aimed at settlers willing to return to Israel now; a national absorption plan which will enable the absorption of those who will return to Israel following negotiations; and bringing the results of the negotiations to the public to decide.

Only through constructive unilateral moves by both sides will a safe, Jewish and democratic Israel be created—without further military conflict, and with international support, led by the United States. In addition, Palestinian moderates will be strengthened and the likelihood of future fruitful negotiations increased. Constructive unilateralism is also in America’s interests. It does not call on the U.S. to actively broker a deal. Instead, Barack Obama would back actions aimed at facilitating a resolution of the conflict on the “two state” basis. He should encourage and support this approach; for now, it appears to be the only one that can yield any progress.