An Israeli View

Consider welcoming Palestinian unilateralism

What lies behind Palestinian unilateralism declarations? Frustration, yes; and of course political calculations--domestic, bilateral and international. Is this yet again a kind of "tour de force" the Palestinians have so skillfully mastered in the international arena, or does it bear substantive significance? One would hope to find in it the drive for statehood, the genuine quest for governance and responsibility reflected in institution-building, dignity and normative values. If indeed these rather than mere diplomatic gain should be read into the subtext, then Israel has no reason to panic and automatically reject the declaration.

Unilateralism has not been applied too often in the international arena during the last century. Moreover, the few unilateral declarations on record were often rejected by major stakeholders. Here are the main cases: The Irish Republic, 1919; Indonesia, 1945; Katanga, 1960; Rhodesia, 1965; Guinea Bissau, 1973; East Timor, 1975; The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, 1983; and Kosovo, 2008. It should also be noted that according to the 2006 International Law Commission's report submitted to the United Nations, only unilateral declarations made by states are capable of creating legal obligations.

The State of Palestine was unilaterally proclaimed in 1988 by the Palestinian National Council in Tunis. It was immediately recognized by the Arab League and several other Muslim regimes. However, failing to meet the essential condition for a state--territory--it has been recognized neither by the UN nor by any western state.
Subsequent to the signing of the Oslo agreements and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the 1988 failed unilateral declaration led to several leverage-driven statements by Chairman Yasser Arafat. A decade later, in November 1998, he announced that he would unilaterally declare the establishment of a Palestinian state in May 1999. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded that if Arafat unilaterally declared a state without negotiating the matter with Israel, the latter would scuttle all agreements and render the Oslo Accords null and void.

In fact, a few weeks earlier, in October 1998, the Wye River Memorandum stated: "Recognizing the necessity to create a positive environment for the negotiations, neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in accordance with the Interim Agreement." Such unilateral action, stressed an official Israeli communique, constitutes a flagrant violation of the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, which clearly prohibits either party from changing the status of the territories prior to the conclusion of permanent status negotiations between the sides.

Nevertheless, the pattern of intimidating Israel by a unilateral Palestinian statement was used again several times with concrete deadlines during Ehud Barak's tenure. The government of Israel, threatened by the prospect that such an independence statement might gain the support of the international community, deliberated at length over how best to respond and made considerable political, legal and on-the-ground preparations.

Yet Israel itself took its two main strategic policy decisions of the current decade unilaterally: the pull-out from Lebanon in May 2000, under Barak's premiership, and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria led by PM Ariel Sharon five years later, in August 2005. In both cases, Israel withdrew to precisely the international boundaries. Despite acclaim in some circles for both major Israeli moves as being strategically imperative, courageously led and conducted in a timely fashion, internal and external criticism was heavy. It focused on several issues: Israel's disregard for a negotiating partner; the vacuum in governance, law, order and security created by the pull-out; the absence of any tangible Israeli "payoff"; and finally, the Arab perception of a guerilla victory over the IDF--Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Recently, faced again with Palestinian threats to unilaterally declare a state, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared that Israel would not stand still should Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad go ahead with his stated plan to declare a de-facto state within two years. Such unilateral initiatives would not contribute to a positive dialogue, said Israeli officials.

As early as June 2002, US President George W. Bush anticipated that, under Phase II of the roadmap, the process would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders. The vast majority of Palestinians of influence I have met since then despise this idea. In the Middle East, they argue, nothing is more permanent than the provisional: we Palestinians will remain stuck in our temporary borders forever. Now, with an anticipated unilateral declaration, there is no doubt that a provisional boundary would be delineated until the successful conclusion of permanent status negotiations on settlement evacuation and land swaps.

Once a Palestinian state is lawfully declared, albeit unilaterally, there are from an Israeli perspective several advantages. Firstly, a virtual Israeli-Palestinian disengagement is obtained. This would speed up the dialogue over an Israeli-Palestinian territorial accord, along with solid security arrangements.
Secondly, from that moment on, negotiations over such core issues as Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements and boundaries would be conducted in a state-to-state context. This could easily be integrated within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, which will hopefully soon be revisited.

Thirdly, the international community, namely the Quartet and moderate Arab countries, would be more committed to look diligently for ways to promote the revitalization of the nascent state. This should include not only rehabilitation and economic steps, but reinforcement of international involvement in security, law enforcement and public order in Palestine. Finally, the onus of having acted unilaterally rather than through a negotiating process would fall on Palestinian shoulders.

Having said this, in the event that Fayyad retracts the Palestinian unilateral option, and only if negotiations fail after exhaustive, sincere and continual efforts to make them work, Israel should consider planning its own unilateral disengagement based on the need to ensure its Jewish, Zionist and democratic identity. It would do so by disengaging from the Palestinians and defining its boundaries roughly along the contours of the security fence. Such provisional boundaries would be essential to safeguarding Israel's future. The Jewish people has a right to self-determination within borders that protect Israel's vital interests and enhance its social fabric while strengthening national unity and security--preferably via a negotiated agreement, unilaterally if negotiations fail.

Attorney Gilead Sher (colonel, res.) was PM Barak's chief of staff and policy coordinator and Israel's co-chief negotiator at the Camp David summit in 2000 and the ensuing Taba talks in 2001. The English version of his book, "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001: Within Reach" was published in 2006.

Published 7/9/2009 ©