The Folly of a ‘Coordinated’ Unilateral Withdrawal

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How Not to Rescue the Two-State Solution

By inviting comments to Cary Nelson’s essay A Proposal to Rescue the 2-State Solution, Fathom Journal (Issue 10, July 2015) has surely provided a useful forum for exploring and clarifying what is possible and not possible in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response, a slightly abbreviated version of the following article was submitted to the journal.

The essence of the proposed plan is that in the absence of a final status agreement, there should be a series of major unilateral Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. The hope is for both sides to agree that each party would make moves that the other accepts to be part of any final status agreement. Failing that, the tacit approval of the parties would be sufficient. This means that each phase of the withdrawal would depend on positive reactions to the previous withdrawal.

Cary Nelson envisages that this unusual process, which he terms coordinated-unilateralism, will initially result in around 85% of the West Bank being handed to the Palestinians. Further Israeli withdrawals will be dependent on a final status agreement with the final border based potentially on the Security Barrier. His hope and belief is that this series of unprecedented withdrawals will encourage trust and momentum towards the 2-State Solution.

These and similar ideas are also in circulation in Israel. For example, Ami Ayalon, the former commander of the Israeli navy, former head of Shin Bet and former MK, featured in the documentary film The Gatekeepers, is a prominent advocate.

Before assessing the project, it is worth briefly looking at why Cary Nelson considers this initiative necessary. Firstly, for unspecified reasons he considers that the current situation is unacceptable and untenable. Further, he believes that Israel is in great danger of becoming increasingly isolated and exposed to dangerous economic and security pressures. Secondly, he has little confidence that substantial and constructive negotiations leading to an end to the conflict will be possible with the current governments of Israel and the Palestinians. This informs his belief that there is a dire need to promote an alternative mechanism towards the 2-State Solution.

But why he believes that the Israeli public will accept his proposals, even tacitly, he never discusses. In fact, as shown below, his proposals have little or no chance of being accepted. This is because they are not as good as he thinks. They ignore the key difficulties that have ruined previous attempts to move forward to the implementation the 2-State Solution. His clear aversion to right-wing thinking means that he never deals with arguments that spread far beyond right-wing circles. As a result, he fails entirely to deal with obvious objections to his scheme.

In so doing, he demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the conflict and why his preferred future government of the left will be unable to enact his plan. He also completely misses the only possible route to the successful achievement of the 2-State Solution he so eagerly desires.

The following argument is divided into four sections:

  1. The central problem of the conflict and the real reason why previous peace efforts have failed.
  2. How the program of coordinated-unilateralism is dangerous and why it will fail.
  3. A brief review of different approaches to conflict resolution.
  4. A proposal for a different paradigm that offers the only possible route to the implementation of the 2-State Solution and an end to the conflict.

1. The Central Problem of the Conflict

Simply put, the core obstacle to a win-win solution to the conflict embodied in the 2-State Solution is this: insofar as the Palestinians and the wider Arab world recognize the existence of Israel as a state, they refuse to accept its Jewishness. And insofar as they recognize its Jewishness, they refuse to accept it as a state – preferring the derisory phrase Zionist entity.
This refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state is the rock against which all peace attempts crash. It kills stone dead any prospect for a 2-State Solution based on 2-states for 2-peoples that would bring the conflict to a conclusion. To put it another way, this refusal is the driving force of the conflict (see The Israeli Demand that Palestinians Accept Israel as a Jewish State).

However, many deny this or cannot see its relevance. Regarding the first of these points, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state is asserted repeatedly.As a single illustration among many, here is a recent statement from the interview given by PLO appointed PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar Al-Yawm. He says, simply and starkly:

We cannot recognize a Jewish state.
(30 November 2014, MEMRI Special Dispatch 5898 05 Dec 2014)

The occasion was the meeting of the Arab League on the previous day in Cairo where the Arab League restated its position of:

categorical rejection of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
(Al-Ahram online 29 Nov 2014)

Yet sometimes the claim is made that the Palestinians have in fact accepted Israel. For example, Gidi Grinstein (head of the Re’ut Institute in Tel Aviv, cited by Cary Nelson) states that:

The Palestinians have already recognized Israel more than once.

And on this basis, he recommends:

Israel should view its recognition by the Palestinians as a ‘done deal’.
(Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People / Palestine as the Nation State of the Palestinian People, 3/12/2014)

This is doubly misleading. In the first place, it is not a done deal. No Palestinian party, faction, militia or leader has expressed support for recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Secondly, by replacing the issue of acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state with the unremarkable fact of Palestinian recognition of the obvious reality of Israel’s existence, the core issue is obscured. Helpfully, the PLO Ambassador to India, Adli Sadeq explained the distinction:

There are no two Palestinians who disagree over the fact that Israel exists, and recognition of it is stating the obvious, but recognition of its right to exist is something else.

To emphasize this point, he continued:

They (the Israelis, JD) have a common mistake, or misconception by which they fool themselves, assuming that Fatah accepts them and recognizes the right of their state to exist, and that it is Hamas alone that loathes them and does not recognize the right of this state to exist.
They ignore the fact that this state, based on a fabricated enterprise, never had any shred of a right to exist.
(PA Daily Al-Hayet Al-Jadida 26 Nov 2011,

Such remarks are not peripheral or unrepresentative. They are restated incessantly and routinely in Palestinian political discourse. Yet this hostility to the existence of a Jewish state is almost entirely hidden from the international public by serious failures of reporting by the mainstream media. But this does not mean that it can be ignored by those who claim to have a solution to the conflict. For sure, Israel cannot ignore it.

In any case, if the Palestinians really had accepted Israel as claimed, it would be incomprehensible that they would refuse the simple step of reaffirming their supposed acceptance. This would reassure the nervous Israelis and cut the ground from under the right wing. Instead, the Palestinians take great pains to avoid this. In short, the Palestinian/Arab denial is deeper, more powerful and more central than Cary Nelson and others appreciate.

Why the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jews is the core issue

The relevance of this denial is simple. Palestinian/Arab acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is necessary in order to reassure Israelis that any Palestinian state alongside Israel will bring an end to the conflict rather than its extension. The fear is that a Palestinian state will provide a base for whoever rules it, probably in conjunction with others, for use as a springboard for further attempts to destroy Israel. Therefore, assurance is needed that the agreement for a 2-State Solution really will be an exchange of land-for-peace rather than an exchange of land for more rockets, more tunnels, more terror and more war.

This is easily understood when geography and size are considered. With a border approximately five times longer than that of Gaza, the West Bank has an area fifteen times greater. Unlike Gaza, its heights are adjacent to and overlook major population and economic centers of Israel. With major road and rail routes also alongside and Israel’s only international airport nearby, this would offer a hostile Palestinian state, or hostilities from a Palestinian state, an abundance of easy targets.

This presents Israel with severe problems. Firstly, the longer border compared to Gaza would be far more difficult to control. Secondly, the close proximity and greater concentration of population and economic targets will be much harder to defend. Thirdly, in contrast to the area around Gaza, this concentration allows practically no space for military maneuvering.

An illustration of these dangers and the anxiety they produce in Israel can be seen from the practical and political difficulties experienced in suppressing Hamas attacks and controlling mortars and tunnels in the Gaza War last summer. Consequently, if the 2-State Solution is to be the answer that its advocates claim, the issue of Palestinian/Arab acceptance of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews with a legitimate right to exist is an issue that absolutely must be settled if the conflict is to be truly over.

2. The Dangers of the Coordinated-Unilateralism Plan

Instead of confronting this core issue, Cary Nelson’s scheme ignores it. And he neither asks nor answers the question of what will happen if the behavior in response to withdrawals is not positive. In fact, at any stage in this process, or at its end, it would be relatively easy for whoever governs the Palestinians to renege on their tacit approval. By contrast, the new facts-on-the ground created by the surrender of land could prove very difficult for Israel to reverse.

This does nothing to allay suspicions in Israel of the inherent imbalance in land-for-peace schemes. In this new version, the inbuilt asymmetry is that Israel unilaterally gives up the concrete asset of land, albeit in large chunks rather than in one-fell-swoop, for an assumed future promise of a peace agreement, which he simply hopes will be the conclusion. That is to say, the exchange involves a series of fundamental and high-risk actions on the part of Israel for the expectation of an imprecise, uncertain and unreliable promise on the part of the Palestinians.

Supporters of a Palestinian state tend to ignore these perils for Israel and instead uncritically assume or hope for moderation and reliability from the PA. Unfortunately, the PA is neither moderate nor reliable. Instead, it is a typically corrupt, violent and unstable Arab tyranny. Its chief expertise is not nation-building but the obliteration of democracy, the repression of its own people and the enrichment of an elite on the back of international donations. Without legal or democratic support, its only redeeming feature is in comparison to even worse rivals waiting to seize power.

Therefore, the crucial question becomes one of how to be reasonably sure that what is likely to be an irreversible process will not end with a situation far worse than the problem it was supposed to solve. Unfortunately, Cary Nelson is so convinced that his scheme will work that he fails to treat such issues seriously. But no Israeli government can be so careless. This is why PM Netanyahu has repeatedly made the acceptance of Israel as Jewish state the fundamental building block of any 2-State Solution. For example:

There will be no Palestinian state before the state of Israel is recognized as the Jewish people’s state, and there will be no Palestinian state before the Palestinians declare an end to the conflict.
( 02/12/2012)

This seems an entirely reasonable and practical measure to ensure that a peace deal really is an end to all threats to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. With Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, it would at last be believable that a Palestinian state and a Jewish state would be able to live alongside one another peacefully. In other words, this will not be the first stage of Yasser Arafat’s 2-Stage Solution to eliminate Israel – not a bright new beginning in any sense but merely a continuation of old Arab efforts to eliminate Israel. This is why Israel needs powerful assurances.

Israel’s suspicions confirmed

Unfortunately, the Palestinians have refused all opportunities to provide such assurances. Along with the lethal demand for the return of the ‘refugees’, their persistence and determination to leave the status and character of Israel open to challenge is a sign of a determined purpose. Therefore, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state is a declaration by the Palestinians that the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel will not end the conflict. Claims to areas crucial to Israel’s ability to defend its citizens bear this out.

Leading Palestinian representatives corroborate this interpretation. For example, Abdullah Abdullah, PLO Ambassador to Lebanon, had this to say:

When we have a state accepted as a member of the United Nations, this is not the end of the conflict. This is not the solution to the conflict. This is only a new framework that will change the rules of the game.
(Daily Star Beirut 15 Sept 2011)

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Fatah Central Committee member Abbas Zaki went further:

When we say that a settlement should be based on these borders (04 June 1967), President (Abbas) understands, we understand, and everybody knows that the greater goal cannot be accomplished in one go.

If Israel withdraws from Jerusalem, evacuates the 650,000 settlers, and dismantles the wall – what will become of Israel? It will come to an end.

If one says that one wants to wipe Israel out … it’s not policy to say so. Don’t say these things to the world. Keep them to yourself.
(Al-Jazeera 23 Sept 2011, MEMRITV Clip #3130)

Under reporting of these and similar statements means that they are not widely known and can easily be ignored. But as before, they cannot be ignored in Israel. Nor can they be ignored by those who claim to possess the solution to the conflict if they wish to be treated seriously by Israel.

The real reason why the Palestinians refuse negotiations

However, as well as rejecting Netanyahu‘s call to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Abbas has yet to respond to a further invitation from Netanyahu. This is to speak at any university platform in Israel to explain his vision of peace and reconciliation. Instead, in the previously mentioned interview in Cairo, Abbas also stated:

Israel must recognize the June 4, 1967 border.
(MEMRI 05 Dec 2014 Special Dispatch5898)

Leaving aside that the treaty between Jordan and Israel specified that the armistice line between their respective armies was not a border, Netanyahu’s invitation would be a marvelous opportunity for Abbas to say that if Israel accepted his demand he would reciprocate by accepting Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people Jewish and end the conflict. But he hasn’t, he can’t and he won’t. Instead, this adds to the suspicion that his aim is to achieve Palestinian self-determination by means of the elimination of Jewish self-determination.

Nor have the Palestinians accepted the repeated offer from Netanyahu to resume negotiations. Two reasons are generally given for this. Firstly, there has been the accusation that Netanyahu’s proclaimed desire for negotiations and a peace agreement is merely a pretense; that he does not genuinely believe in the 2-State Solution. In fact, this would be very simple to test. All Abbas, the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League need to do is to call the assumed bluff by the simple method of accepting Israel as a Jewish state.

This would gain Abbas access to the bimah in the Knesset in about 5 minutes flat. The momentum generated would be unstoppable. But Abbas hasn’t, he can’t and he won’t do this either. Nor will the vast hinterland of support in the Arab world (see, Abbas Speaks to the Knesset).

Secondly, the Palestinians justify their refusal to negotiate by the continuation of settlement building on the West Bank. This has been taken-up by the international mass media and repeated ad nauseam to become the generally accepted reason that blames Israel for the absence of negotiations. But a brief reflection shows that this too is false. By backing out of negotiations, the Palestinians are actually assisting the continuation of settlement building. In effect, they are handing a veto on negotiations to Israel. King Hussein and others have pointed out that without this stance the Palestinians could well have ended settlement construction and established their own state.

This would seem to show that the status quo is not as untenable for the Palestinians as claimed. It also shows, unless they are considered collectively stupid, that there must be a far bigger reason for this refusal to negotiate. If this is not because they refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state, and that this would become the central plank of negotiations with a Netanyahu government, then what is it?

Coordinated-Unilateralism: an unprecedented opportunity for conflict escalation

It is well known that the Palestinians walked away from the extensive offers to settle the conflict from PMs Barak and Olmert. Yet the conclusion of the proposed coordinated-unilateral method appears to differ little from these previous offers. Therefore, the obvious question is: why should we now expect a different response? This question was neither asked nor answered by the author. In any case, given the evolution of the conflict, it is unlikely that such offers could now be repeated. The Gaza War last summer demonstrated to the Israeli public that these terms are far too risky.

Therefore, without clear and powerful reasons why peace would result from allowing the Palestinians to control a far longer border with Israel than Gaza and a much greater land mass, it will be politically impossible to implement this program. Additionally, the unprecedentedly savage turmoil sweeping the region reinforces the dangers facing Israel.

As a result, Cary Nelson is right about one thing: the outlook for the 2-State Solution is bleak. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate that the 2-State Solution, in the sense of 2-States for 2-Peoples to end the conflict, is even remotely acceptable to the Palestinians and the Arab world in general. Therefore, in these circumstances a Palestinian state overlooking Israel’s largest economic and population concentrations would be unacceptable to Israel.

In sum, by keeping intact the main ingredient of the conflict and ignoring or postponing its supposed resolution to a subjectively assumed happy ending, the program of coordinated-unilateralism will provide tremendous encouragement and unprecedented opportunity for the enemies of Israel to pursue their 2-Stage Solution. It would be a potential disaster for Israel.

3. Conflicting Conflict-Resolution Solutions

In common democratic and liberal usage, the term conflict resolution means an agreement reached by compromise that gives each side something but not necessarily all of what it wants. In this sense, the 2-State Solution is the only win-win solution in town. However, the word solution can be used in the sense of a zero-sum solution where the winner-takes-all. In this meaning, there is no getting-to-yes by means of a negotiation embodying give-and-take compromise. For example, the solution to the conflict between the Nazi domination of Europe and a Europe free of Nazi domination was achieved on a zero-sum basis with the destruction of the Nazis as an effective force. Negotiation, compromise and diplomacy all failed. In other words, not all differences and conflicts are solvable on a win-win basis.

Unfortunately, neither the Palestinian narrative nor the governments of the West Bank and Gaza are democratic or liberal. Not a single Palestinian leader, party, faction or armed group, whether belonging to the PA or their Islamist opponents Hamas and other jihadists, is remotely interested in a liberal and democratic solution to end the conflict. This is because they are not primarily opposed to the boundaries of Israel or to its behavior, but to its existence. For them, 2-States for 2-Peoples will not be a happy conclusion to the conflict but an act of treason.

That is to say, the Arab/Palestinian world view believes the exact opposite of the 2-State Solution: that there are no legitimate Jewish national rights on what they consider exclusively Arab/Muslim land, and that any such acceptance would be a betrayal. No matter how strongly advocates of the 2-State solution believe it ought to be the solution, the 2-State Solution contradicts the Arab/Palestinian claim. To put it differently, the notion that we must make peace with our enemy is fine – as long as the enemy abandons the aim of destroying us.

Without this step of accepting Israel, the proposition that the 2-State Solution is the only equitable method to satisfy both the national aspirations of the Palestinians and the security aspirations of the Israelis will again fail. It will fail because this ostensibly reasonable solution does not satisfy the real aspirations of the Palestinians. As a result, the security concerns of Israel cannot be satisfied.

Therefore, a sharp dose of reality is needed in the dreamier sections of the ‘international community’ to achieve far wider appreciation that as long as the Palestinians refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state there is zero chance of ending the conflict. This is extremely difficult and uncomfortable for many to stomach. It seems to mean an end to the dreams and hopes of the 2-State Solution in which so much energy and emotion has been invested.

It leaves them in a similar place to Cary Nelson in relation to Hamas in Gaza. He clearly understands that the explicit aim of Hamas of dismantling Israel leaves no room for the compromise of the 2-State Solution. As a result, he has no proposals for Gaza. But what he has not grasped is that the PA rejection of Israel as the legitimate expression of Jewish national self-determination is the equivalent of the straightforward Hamas rejection. As a result, he fails to see that this leaves him in exactly the same position with the West Bank as he is with Gaza. In other words, he has not seen that his assumptions of a win-win solution are untenable. Therefore, the insertion of what he imagines is a win-win solution into what in fact is a zero-sum conflict is seriously misguided.

Many of Cary Nelson’s sentiments echo the frustration of those who feel that something should be done to end the conflict. But it is only possible to end conflicts of incompatible and unresolvable positions when one side is defeated or one or both sides modify their positions. A defeat for one side implies a winner-takes-all resolution of the conflict. By contrast, a modified position implies that a win-win conclusion to the conflict would be finally possible. The modification necessary for the successful implementation of the 2-State Solution is Palestinian-Arab acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.

This is the only grand gesture that could end the conflict on a win-win basis. Therefore, this is what Corey Nelson and other advocates of the 2 State Solution need to work on if their vision is to have any chance of practical success.

4. A Different Paradigm

Unfortunately, years of peace talks, interim agreements, on-off negotiations, recriminations over settlements, disputes over land-swaps, prisoner releases, and so on, have all reinforced the idea that the win-win approach is normal and agreed. As a result, the Palestinian rejection of the Jewish state is hidden from public view. Therefore, in order to resolve the conflict, this needs to be brought to the forefront. This is to say that the task of inducing the Palestinians and the wider Arab world to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people should be made the focus of international diplomacy and public agitation. To achieve this means that the focus to date on a concessions-based approach should be jettisoned. It represents a tried and tested approach that has failed repeatedly. Lethal flaws have ensured this failure.

Firstly, by leaving the key issue unresolved, the conflict will continue. Secondly, by focusing overwhelmingly on what Israel should or must do, there has been no real engagement with the Palestinians for equivalent confidence-building measures. For example, there has been no serious effort to persuade them to end the ceaseless stream of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred or the violent calls for the liberation of the 48 territories, from the river to the sea, and so on. Thirdly, the concessions-based approach obscures from view the zero-sum strategy of the Palestinians. This has the disastrous political effect of hiding from the international public that Palestinian intransigence is behind the lack of a peace settlement.

The rights-based alternative

Therefore, in place of concessions-based diplomacy and agitation, the adoption of a rights-based approach is needed with reciprocal and mutual acceptance at its heart. Instructively, although Cary Nelson’s essay has a section entitled Deep Mutual Recognition, it manages to say absolutely nothing on the topic.

Only a rights-based strategy can concentrate attention on the central obstacle to a win-win end to the conflict. That is to say, by switching the focus from making concessions to making demands, attention can at last be focused on the substantive core of the conflict. This will make it more widely understood that any successful achievement of a Palestinian state is largely in Palestinian hands. It places the ball firmly in their court.

From diplomatic and Israel-advocacy points of view, Israel needs to avoid once again being embroiled in fake final status negotiations which foster and perpetuate the fiction that a win-win solution is possible as if the PA, or any other Palestinian body, were willing to agree to the necessary compromise to end the conflict. Such negotiations have the diplomatically disastrous effect of hiding the Palestinian zero-sum approach behind the appearance of a win-win procedure. This reinforces the widespread impression that it is not the Palestinians but Israel that is the obstacle to peace and thus solidifies international hostility towards Israel. Therefore, there is a strong case that Israel should demand Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a condition for future substantive talks. This would place the core issue at the center of diplomatic and public attention in a way that nothing else could.

By contrast, proposing maneuvers that in the absence of Palestinian acceptance of Jewish national self-determination will only make matters worse, will also waste precious time, energy and hope in a direction that continues to hide the driving force of the conflict from the international public and so ensures its continuation. In its place, it would be far more constructive to build a sustained international campaign to persuade the Palestinians to acknowledge Jewish national rights, just as they wish their own to be accepted. This would at last bring about a situation of normality where Israel is recognized on the basis of its self-description in the same way that other states are accepted – such as Iran and Pakistan as Islamic states and Egypt and the UAE as Arab states.

In sum, a rights-based approach kills two birds with one stone. By turning round the Palestinian and wider Arab view of the Jewish state, it would open up the way for a resolution of the conflict based on 2-States for 2-Peoples. Naturally, no single issue alone is sufficient to solve completely such a deep-rooted conflict, but this would be a strong beginning towards a win-win solution. On the other hand, if the Palestinians continue their refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state, it will be easier for the international public to see that the prime cause for the failure does not lie with Israel.

Jon Dyson

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