The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, held in Amman, have ended in mutual recrimination. For two decades, participants have gone in search of a permanent status agreement that would solve all issues and end all claims. They have told themselves that such a deal would be supported by virtually “all reasonable people.” But with no final agreement after years of trying, might it be the very search for a comprehensive and negotiated deal that is the problem?
The obstacles have less to do with bad faith and more to do with certain intractable characteristics of the conflict.
One, there are significant gaps between the parties on the major issues, and it is a bit of a myth that “everyone knows” the shape of the final agreement. As Czech Ambassador Michael Zantovky observes in his recent World Affairs article, “The minimum Palestinian position on refugees does not come near the maximum Israeli concessions on the subject. The minimum Israeli position on security does not come near the maximum Palestinian concessions on demilitarization or the Jordan Valley.” (Although Zantovsky is too pessimistic here: Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told his aides, according to the leaked “Palestine papers,” that “the deal is there” on refugees. Mahmoud Abbas did not reject Ehud Olmert’s offer when he received it. So, the gaps are real but not necessarily unbridgeable.)
Two, because the gaps are significant, the parties often enter talks not because they think a deal is possible but because they are fearful of being blamed by the international community for staying out. “Such fear is enough for negotiations to take place, but not enough for them to succeed,” Zantovsky notes.
Three, the ambition to strike a comprehensive and negotiated and final deal ignores a series of obstacles, among which we can include the following: the irresolvable split (for now, at least) in the Palestinian camp between Hamas’s Islamism and Fatah’s nationalism (after the Amman breakdown, an Israeli official told Haaretz, “We will not enter negotiations with any government that Hamas takes part in, or that its members are appointed by Hamas”); the lack of trust between parties; the belief, on both sides, that negotiations cannot deliver what they want; and the fear both parties hold of damaging what they already have (from economic growth to improved security, from the relative absence of violence to the preservation of fragile governing coalitions).
The price we pay for the paralysis of the peace process is high. Influential commentator Ehud Ya’ari recently argued that continued failure to bring any progress could lead to a Palestinian abandonment of the two-state solution. The global creative class is beginning to trend the same way and to flirt with (frankly, nonexistent) one-state solutions. In the meantime, as Ya’ari puts it, “the diplomatic stalemate discredits moderates and plays into the hands of extremists on both sides who refuse to make the concessions that any viable peace treaty will require.”
Reacting to this stasis, some seek an alternative in “coordinated unilateralism.” In other words, each party would make moves that the other accepts to be part of any final-status agreement (“coordinated”). However, given the paralysis in the negotiating process, they would do so with only the tacit approval of the other party (“unilateral”).
Shlomo Avineri argues that “the United States must abandon its fruitless efforts to obtain a final agreement in favour of examining the option of interim agreements or partial, perhaps even unilateral, measures.” He suggested the following steps: “transferring part or all of Area C in the West Bank from exclusive Israeli control, to the Palestinians; reducing certain strictures at the checkpoints, in accordance with security needs; and allowing the export of West Bank goods from Israeli ports.”
Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service and a former Labor MK (member of the Knesset), has talked warmly of coordinated unilateralism. “It is OK if the Palestinians are demanding unilaterally a Palestinian state—Israel should not be against it; it’s OK if Israel will act unilaterally in order to achieve a reality of two states, as long as it is coordinated with shared vision.”
Support can also be found on the security right. MK Michael Eitan, a Likud veteran, has floated the idea of the Israeli government disengaging from those parts of the West Bank that will be relinquished in a deal. When Likud cabinet minister Dan Meridor pushed a similar unilateralist idea to the Likud rank and file, Israeli commentator Ben Caspit was moved to write in the newspaper Maariv that only in the recent past “such a speech at a meeting of Likud members would have caused [Meridor] to be driven from the house in shame. Today, the members listen … A large number of them agree.”
And some pretty experienced Israeli negotiators have been articulating the case for “coordinated unilateralism.” Gidi Grinstein, secretary of the Israeli delegation for the peace negotiations between 1999 and 2001, and now head of the Tel Aviv–based Reut think tank, has defined coordinated unilateralism as “an alternative logic with a much higher likelihood of success, security and stability.”
Grinstein also envisages a set of back-to-back unilateral Israeli and Palestinian actions including the transfer of further territory in Area C to Palestinian Authority control, and the lifting of various restrictions on international activity by the PA, as well as moves to upgrade the PA in the West Bank to de facto statehood and recognize it de jure, without a formal agreement.
Grinstein claims that coordinated unilateralism would hold a series of advantages. First, it would be a kind of Fayyadism-plus, green-lighting the PA to continue nation-building. Second, it would be low-risk, so less likely to experience the periodic screeching halts that plague the peace process. Third, unilateral measures can mostly be implemented by governments, so shielding the process from legislators. Fourth, it puts off a resolution of the Gaza-West Bank split (and so avoids having to pretend that a “demilitarized Palestine” is compatible with a militarized Gaza). Fifth, it evades unrealistic implementation arrangements and timetables. And finally, the creation of a Palestinian state may give many refugees the feeling that they have a home that realizes their collective desire for self-determination, draining away some of the venom from that issue.
Perhaps it is wrong to see a flat contradiction between unilateral steps and negotiations; a modest form of “coordinated unilateralism” may actually help restart the peace process. With my colleague Dr. Toby Greene, I recently wrote a policy paper for the London-based Foreign Policy Centre about how to create a future for the two-state solution. One recommendation was that the international community should encourage Israel to propose, and the Palestinians to engage constructively with, steps in the West Bank that will increase Palestinian autonomy and advance the parties toward a two-state reality if not, for now, a two-state solution.
It was reported last week in Haaretz that the Palestinians rejected an Israeli offer of an initial package of gestures that would come in return for the Palestinians continuing the Amman negotiation process. The offer included releasing a small number of Palestinian prisoners, establishing ten Palestinian police stations in Area B (under Palestinian civil control, but Israeli security control), and allowing some Palestinian economic projects in Area C, which is under full Israeli control. The package was modest, but could be a model for more substantial moves down the line, in a context of increased trust—and if the Palestinians agreed to suspend their attempts to circumvent negotiations by seeking recognition unilaterally at the UN.
Israel, for example, could give up some restrictions on PA sovereignty, gradually making Palestinian territory contiguous (by making changes to the status of parts of Area C, presently under Israeli control), dismantling some settlements and illegal outposts, and potentially providing direct access to Jordan with appropriate security arrangements.
The Palestinians have been scornful of all proposals for confidence-building gestures or interim arrangements, painting them as Israeli stalling tactics. But this is self-defeating. Any such measures should be judged by their consistency with the goal of achieving an eventual two-state reality.