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October 16, 2005

Palestinians beware: Unilateralism is gaining steam in Israel

By: Gershon Baskin*


Out a sense of frustration, perhaps from a sense of despair, there are more and more proposals for continued unilateralism coming out of what used to be the Israeli “peace camp”.  The proposals are coming from people who truly want peace on the basis of the two-states for two people solution.  These are people who have little problems accepting the Clinton parameters or the Geneva formula.  They are proposing continued unilateralism because they don’t believe that any progress can be made at the present time through a negotiated process.

These Israeli observers and peace advocates view the current excruciatingly painful negotiations over technical matters and passages and rightly say: if we can’t make progress on the small issues, how can we make progress on the real issues – final borders, Jerusalem, refugees, etc.?  The planned Sharon-Abbas summit was postponed because the gaps are too wide between the sides on simple issues.

The Sharon government is continuously berating the Palestinian Authority that they are not fighting terror and not implementing their Road Map obligations to dismantle the terror infrastructure, and anything that they might be doing is a drop in the sea. Even vis-à-vis Abbas’s own Fatah party, the PA has no control.  Armed militias do as they please and the Palestinian Authority seems helpless.  Kidnappings in Gaza and the rule by the gun is the norm in Gaza today.  With the Israelis out of Gaza and no one to blame, the total chaos and complete absence of any personal security there only provides additional evidence that the PA is too weak to rule.  Everyone knows that negotiations with such a weak partner cannot be fruitful.

Many Israeli analysts believe that the problem isn’t the lack of capacity of the PA security forces, but the absence of the political will. Most Israelis, left and right, believe that the Palestinian Authority will have to face its day of reckoning – the day of a political decision to “do or die”. Most Israelis believe that that day is already here. Maybe it will bring about a civil war and maybe it won’t, but failure to confront the militia and the Hamas with force is almost guaranteed to bring about the ascendance of Hamas to ruling status.  Most Israelis believe that there is no escaping the necessity of confrontation.  They know this from their own experience of state-building and they are waiting for a Palestinian Ben Gurion to stand up and to take control

Most Israelis know that there are Palestinian leaders with strength and courage but they see them sitting on the sidelines and not helping, or even worse, undermining the efforts of Abbas and Nasser Yousef. It is reported that foreign governments have been pumping huge sums of cash to people like Mohammed Dahlan for them to buy support and loyalty, as the Hamas has done with cash pumped in from the outside. Those governments expect people like Dahlan to be actively involved in removing chaos and terror elements from the Palestinian streets. Those governments don’t see the fruits of their investments and are becoming equally frustrated by the lack of results.  Frustration for the foreign governments means disengagement from Palestine – similar to the Israeli response.  Foreign disengagement means an end to or a serious reduction in potential financial support to Palestine, at the very time that the international community is equally ready to pump huge sums of money to help, if there is a responsible Palestinian government in charge.

Palestinians usually respond to this kind of scenario by stating that this is the surest way of bringing about a Hamas victory.  The Israeli response to that is: so be it! If this is the choice of the Palestinians, we will know how to respond.  If our neighbors seek to destroy us and push us into the sea, it is better to know this and for the world to know this than to act under the charade of a false peace process.  If the Palestinians desire to create from themselves a Talibanstan in the West Bank and Gaza, this is their own choice. These Israeli say, we will not interfere and it is not our business.  We remove our hands from the Palestinian question.  When and if the Palestinians decide that they wish to live together in peace with Israel, they will demonstrate that desire by taking action within their own society against those who wish to destroy Israel. Until then, there is no reason to pursue negotiations or any kind of relations with them.  We will withdraw to borders that we will determine, leaving space for future negotiations, but holding on to areas that are vital for our own security and we will wait.  If it takes a year, great.  If it takes ten years or twenty years, we are in no rush.  If it never happens, we can also live with that.

The Israeli response to no action on the Palestinian side is to encourage Sharon to continue with more unilateral steps.  Many analysts and people close to decision making circles are convinced that Sharon is ready and able to take the next step.  Sharon has proven his strength in this area and public opinion polls demonstrate clear public support to continue the process. They say that the next step will lead Israel to withdraw behind the separation barrier.  Israel will remain in the Jordan valley, there would remain an Israeli presence in the “Ariel finger” and the greater Jerusalem area will include Maaleh Adumim and Givat Zeev.  There would be another round of settlement dismantlement – this time in much larger numbers. Israel would withdraw from about 60% of the West Bank. Coordination with the Palestinian Authority would take place as deemed absolutely necessary, but it is in no way a vital aspect of the proposed policy.

Israel will cancel the common customs envelope and will minimize cooperation to only the most necessary areas.  Israel will continue to supply electricity, water, etc. Trade will continue at lower levels but trade will continue to be facilitated through the Israeli ports.  Israel will encourage the international community to step in to assist the Palestinians, but Israel’s own policy will be to minimize the relationships and to sit and wait to see what develops on the other side.  

If Palestinians suffer and the economy weakens even more, this, they say, is a Palestinian problem and not an Israeli problem.  If the world wishes to help the Palestinians, so be it. Israel will agree for Gaza to be linked to the world through a seaport and maybe they will agree to have the airport re-open with sufficient security guarantees provided by acceptable third parties who will monitor and enforce the regulations prohibiting the importation of weapons to Gaza at both ports.   Israel will maintain very good relations with Egypt in order to ensure continued positive Egyptian patrolling of Gaza and even encourage to US to upgrade its relations with Egypt in exchange for a continued positive Egyptian role vis-à-vis Israel.

Some Palestinians share the view that this kind of “cold turkey” policy is the only way to get Palestinians to take responsibility for themselves. Israeli withdrawals and settlement dismantlement within the West Bank will not end the conflict and claims, but it will remove Israel, once again from more Palestinian territories. Palestinians cannot object to this. It falls far short of what Palestinians would like to see, but a positive Palestinian response would be to take responsibility for the additional territories that will come under their control.  And if the Palestinians fail to take responsibility, then there will be no progress towards conflict resolution.

Palestinians have yet to translate into reality the unilateral steps that they can take. A continued Israeli unilateral policy may force the Palestinians to become pro-active and to advance an internal process of complete separation from the undesirable over dependence on Israel.  Israeli unilateralism leading to withdrawal and closure of Israel to the Palestinians would force the Palestinians to place more emphasis on what is happening inside the Palestinian territories.  If they can manage to build from that situation, it would be the process of state building.  If not, if chaos continues to reign, or if the Hamas leads, then Palestinians will be faced with the product of their own choice.  The pressure would be on the Palestinians themselves to decide for themselves.

While it is clear that this is not a strategy for conflict resolution, and everyone knows that without resolving, in negotiations, the questions on final boundaries, Jerusalem, refugees, etc. there can be no peace. This is an Israeli strategy of conflict management.  If under this scenario the Palestinians devote most of their efforts to launching attacks against Israel, Palestinian society will continue to pay a very heavy price.  Israel may also pay a high price, but it will seem to most Israelis that Israel did everything it could do to advance positive relations with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians chose Hamas instead. That is how it will be understood in Israel, and in most of the western world.

Israelis advocating this strategy view it as a win-win strategy for Israel. If it forces the PA to fight Hamas, then a real peace process can emerge.  If, in the end of the day, the PA does not fight Hamas and Hamas comes into power, then Israel is secure, it did not take real strategic risks and the world will not pressure Israel to negotiate with Hamas.  If in the end Hamas reforms itself, moderates its views, accepts Israel (albeit very unlikely), then perhaps Hamas would be a better partner than the corrupt Palestinian Authority.

In my assessment, this point of view is gaining steam in Israel. There is a real chance that the center of the political map, where the majority of Israelis are, will move steadily towards accepting this unilateral agenda.  Palestinians should be aware of this trend in Israel and decide how to confront it.

There is, in my view, no better way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the outstanding issues than a negotiated process. In my assessment, with the current trends in Israeli politics, there will be no negotiated process unless the Palestinian Authority seriously confronts Hamas and other militarized elements in Palestinian society.  Either there will be “one authority and one gun” or there will be no Road Map, no Geneva or any other negotiated process.  

There is no possibility to have it both ways – the PA cannot advocate its desire to negotiate a peace with Israel and allow armed militia which advocate not only Israel’s destruction, but also the destruction of Palestinian democracy. Hamas wishes to create an Islamic republic in Palestine ruled by the Sharia’.  This is in direct contradiction to the policies of the Palestinian national movement since its inception. Palestine, as written in its own declaration of independence and its draft constitution, will be a state based on Islamic values and heritage, but not an Islamic state. Hamas want a Taliban state. This is a danger to Palestinians as much as it is a danger to Israel and the West.

If Palestinians want democracy it can allow an Islamic party to present its views to the electorate, if it accepts the rules of the game.  If Hamas  wishes to participate in the Palestinian political system, it must conform itself to the rules.  The rules do not have to be conformed to Hamas. Hamas has the option of doing what the IRA did and create a truly separate political party which does not advocate violence and terror and believes in democracy and democratic values. Those who become the political arm of Hamas and wish to participate in the elections must disengage themselves totally from a policy of violence and terror and must support democracy and democratic values. Democracies cannot allow those who wish to destroy it to exploit the rules of democratic elections to come into power. Even democracy has its limits.

If Hamas wishes to become a political party, this should be welcomed, on the grounds of acceptance of the rules of democracy. Then the political Hamas could participate. Those Hamas supporters who do not play by the rules of democracy and non-violence must be held responsible for their actions by the Palestinian government.

If the President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority do not move in this direction, do not be surprised by continued Israeli unilateralism and its results.

* Gershon Baskin is the Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information- Jerusalem.