With Israeli-Palestinian efforts at an impasse and immediate-term hopes for progress toward any agreement fading, the appeal of new ideas is understandable. This is no doubt why discussion of Israeli unilateral options—generally in terms of unilateral “withdrawals” from the West Bank—is in the air.
In this context, it’s essential to distinguish between ideas that are genuinely new and constructive, and ideas that simply perpetuate the avoidance and denial adopted by successive Israeli governments. The former are welcome. The latter are predicated on the belief that catering to the settlers is preferable to confronting them, even if doing so comes at the expense of the best interests of Israel. This latter approach is antithetical to peace and a two-state solution, now or in the future.
How about a riddle? What do you call a unilateral “withdrawal” that leaves Israeli settlers and soldiers behind? The answer: Continued occupation.
Offering left-behind settlers financial incentives to voluntarily relocate won’t alter this reality, given that the left-behind settlers would be the ones who are most ideologically committed to the settlement enterprise. These are the same settlers who are building in contravention of Israeli law and who have a history of violence against not only their Palestinian neighbors but also against the IDF when it gets in their way. Few of them would be enticed to leave, no matter how much money was thrown at them. Indeed, the allegiance of many of these settlers is to “Judea and Samaria,” not the modern state of Israel, and some have made clear that they would take up arms rather than move.
Here’s another riddle: What do you call a unilateral “withdrawal” that is a pretext for unrestrained settlement expansion in the areas of the West Bank from which Israel decides not to “withdraw” (e.g. the area west of Israel’s separation barrier,plus or minus a little, amounting to at least 10% of the West Bank)? The answer: Continuation of a settlement policy that will soon be lethal to the two-state solution.
Such unilateralism would take any mutually acceptable land swap option off the table, rendering a future agreement on borders and territory impossible (Israeli land reserves are sufficient for a swap equivalent to at most 2-3% of the West Bank, along the lines laid out in the Geneva Accord). Moreover, this brand of unilateralism would prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem or any contiguity between East Jerusalem and the West Bank—and no legitimate Palestinian leadership will ever sign an agreement that doesn’t include both.
One more riddle: What do you call a unilateral approach that deprives Israel of any possibility of a two-state solution? The answer: Continuation down a suicidal path which ends with Israel ceasing to be a democracy and a Jewish state. But that’s not all.
Such an approach would have a devastating effect on security and stability. It would erase any vestige of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. By destroying all remaining hope that Palestinians can achieve self-determination and dignity through negotiations, it would fuel radical elements, including those far more extreme than Hamas. It would give settlers every incentive to clash with Palestinians and manipulate the IDF into action. It would imperil Israel’s already-fraught relations with Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, and fuel anti-Israel outrage across the region. It would send an unequivocal message to the world that the Israeli government values settlements and land over peace, sparking denunciations and redoubled calls for boycott and sanctions efforts around the globe.
Back in Israel’s 2006 elections, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni ran and won on a platform promising unilateral withdrawal—which they called “convergence”—from vast areas of the West Bank. The withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, however, led them to conclude that the pitfalls of unilateral action were too great. They subsequently pursued negotiations that brought Israel and the Palestinians closer to an agreement than at any time in history. They laid the groundwork for future negotiations, assuming there is the good faith and political will on both sides to pick up where those prior negotiations left off.
Today, that good faith and political will are precisely what are missing on the part of the Netanyahu government. This absence is evident both in the Netanyahu government’s approach to negotiations and in its adoption of enthusiastically pro-settlement policies—policies that, by creating and expanding facts on the ground, exemplify the kind of Israeli unilateralism that is inimical to a peaceful, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given this reality, supporters of the two-state solution who find themselves seduced by the siren call of unilateralism should beware. Not all unilateralism is new or constructive; the devil is and will always be in the details.
Here’s a final riddle: What do you call proposals for unilateral actions by Israel that benefit the settlers, not the cause of peace? Answer: More of the same.