The chance for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not dead. A way to reach a just, secure and internationally guaranteed compromise exists. Though the path forward may not be easy, it is infinitely preferable to what otherwise lies ahead: a complete unraveling of the Oslo Accords, the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and a massive escalation of death and destruction on both sides.
We must start with a simple fact: The Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations did not end at Camp David in July 2000. Nor did they end when the Al-Aqsa Intifada started two months later. President Clinton’s framework for peace was presented only in December 2000. Indeed, the negotiations in Taba in January 2001 were viewed by the participants as having been distinctly productive. Had Israeli Prime Minister Barak won re-election, it is quite possible that a peace agreement would have been concluded. The new intifada has been enormously destructive, but only after the February 2001 election of Ariel Sharon, to which it contributed, did the violence itself become the dominating issue, ending the negotiations. This has, of course, been reinforced by the events of September 11, 2001.
The American approach to the collapsed peace process remains firmly rooted in the Mitchell report, which was issued last spring: Achieve a cease-fire, undertake confidence-building measures and renew negotiations. It seems eminently sensible. Yet the extraordinary American effort made to achieve even a brief cease-fire suggests that this policy will not work. Indeed, even if a cease-fire takes hold, chances are very high that it will break down long before confidence-building measures have been undertaken. Moreover, even if negotiations are renewed, with the vast gap on final status between the PLO and the present Israeli government led by Sharon, the likelihood for negotiations deadlock, on every central issue, is very high. And such total deadlock will inevitably disintegrate into renewed violence, at ever higher levels of intensity. Indeed, even if the proposal discussed by Shimon Peres and Abu Ala for immediate Palestinian sovereignty in the limited areas from which Israel has already withdrawn were to be adopted, it would provide only a short respite before the reality of total deadlock reasserted itself. It is time for the United States, exercising leadership through the UN Security Council, to pursue a wholly different approach.
With the failure of efforts to re-establish meaningful bilateral negotiations, and with the delegitimization of Arafat as a negotiating partner, Israelis are increasingly looking for decisive unilateral solutions. In particular there is strong public support for unilateral separation: the idea that Israel, without negotiations, should withdraw from some or all of the territories and establish a physical barrier, with the Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other.
While unilateral separation resonates well with the public, it has only limited support among the Israeli leadership and security establishment. There are several reasons for this. First, with the current Israeli government in power, any unilateral separation would only be partial, leaving almost all the settlements intact and substantial areas of the West Bank under Israeli control. It would not result in a viable territory for the emergence of a Palestinian state. Thus it would produce only a new line of conflict. Second, unilateral withdrawal would serve to confirm among Palestinians the belief that it is possible to drive Israel from the territories through violence. Thus it would bring fresh recruits to that effort. And third, even if it were possible to withdraw to a truly viable line–some version of the 1967 border with adjustments to accommodate some of the settlers–unilateral withdrawal would mean that Israel was giving up territory without having gotten anything in return. Even for the advocates of land for peace, to give up the land without having secured the peace is wrongheaded.