Barak's Threat

What You Need to Know About Unilateralism

In a speech at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies on Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak floated the idea, as if it were a new one, that if two-state negotiations with the Palestinians fail, Israel “must consider an interim arrangement or even a unilateral move."

What he forgets, or at least doesn’t mention, is that the entire current arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian people is “interim”; what he further forgets, or doesn’t mention, is that Israel’s tendency toward unilateralism plays an enormous role in the conflict as it stands today.

The 1993 Oslo Accords established an interim governing body called the Palestinian Authority. The PA is not now, nor was it ever, a sovereign government. It was only ever meant to be a stop-gap measure, a mechanism to allow for state building as negotiations continued. (In fact, few people know that by law, the PA is also not the organ with which Israel negotiates. Only the PLO, which was recognized by Yitzhak Rabin as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” may do that).

According to Oslo, the PA was to be over and done with, and a final status agreement achieved, by 1998. But the entire process fell apart spectacularly, and here everyone remains, in an interim hell that looks frighteningly permanent.

And Israel’s history of unilateral moves doesn’t look much better.

Israel launched an opportunistic war into Lebanon in 1982 through which Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon intended to re-draw the Middle East in Israel’s favor, establish a peace treaty with Lebanon, and destroy the PLO. When the government finally gave up on that grandiose scheme and pulled its forces back from the center of Lebanon to that country’s southern reaches in 1985, it did so unilaterally, leaving a power vacuum that quickly served as an open door to the Syrian army.

Moreover, in the course of those three years, a new organization had emerged, predicated entirely on fighting Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon: Hezbollah. When Israel finally fully withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, it did so again without security arrangements, and Israelis ultimately found themselves dealing with continuing rocket attacks, and the disastrous 2006 Second Lebanon War.

And then there was Gaza in 2005. The unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip—engineered by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to take the wind out of the sails of two different peace proposals that were gaining public favor (the Geneva Accord and the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan)—was meant to afford Israel the best of all possible conflict-management worlds: It left Gaza’s borders, air space, and export/import under Israeli control, while removing Israeli forces and settlers from the midst of a hostile population and giving the impression of fostering peace.

But Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser to Sharon, made very clear to Haaretz what the point of the plan was:

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.

It is, therefore, not surprising that when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly asked to negotiate, or at least coordinate, the withdrawal—so that he could show his people that ten years of peace process had not been wasted—Sharon refused.

Hamas got to claim victory for its methods, went on to narrowly win legislative elections and then a small-scale civil war, and to this day, remains the one Arab force from which Israeli civilians routinely and frequently face a threat to their lives.

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It is of course impossible to know what might have happened had Israel aggressively pursued a durable peace under any of these circumstances.

Here’s what we do know, though:

  • In 2005, two different Israeli-Palestinian teams had hammered out draft peace proposals that closely mirrored the near-agreement achieved under Barak himself in January 2001 at Taba, and Palestinian President Abbas was asking to play a role in the Gaza withdrawal.

Were any of these players disinterested parties, intent only on Israel’s good? Of course not. Nothing on the international stage is ever intended for the sole good of a single nation.

But even so, we can look at the history of Israel’s privileging of unilateral solutions and semi-permanent interim arrangements, and acknowledge that the result has not been what one might term a success.

Rather than falling back on the same approaches and attitudes in which it has been entrenched for so long, Israel would be far better served by dramatic action toward the two-state resolution about which everyone has been talking for decades: A Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land-swaps; a mutually acceptable resolution of the refugee issue; and a shared Jerusalem as the capital city of both peoples.

Given the history, however, I hope my fellow two-state activists will forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.