All Writings
July 15, 2001

Israel Must Act Unilaterally If It Must

What if Israel's Prime Minster Sharon gets his wish and the Palestinians deliver a full week without violence, followed by A six-week cooling-off period? Even if, finally, political negotiation then resumes, it will still be only a matter of time before a new wave of violence erupts. Why? Because neither sides appreciates each other's bottom line. Without such mutual acceptance it is impossible to build an equitable and permanent settlement.
Israel must first decide what is the line beyond which it will not surrender another inch. This line, I believe, must be shaped by the nature of the future relationship Israel seeks with the Palestinians. The line must, therefore, meet the Palestinians' minimal territorial requirements and receive some international support. Only then Israel can act, even unilaterally, if it must. Israel today is divided among three distinct ideological groups, each envisioning a different settlement or arrangement with the Palestinians:
The first group is comprised of the extreme right-wing political parties, including the majority of Likud party members, with Mr. Sharon at the helm, as well as the National Religious Party representing the settlers, who are not likely to ever abandon their dream of "Greater Israel." These Israelis are profoundly skeptical of the Palestinians' ultimate intentions and professed willingness to settle for only the West Bank and Gaza along with the old city of Jerusalem. From their perspective, there is no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Israel must, therefore, maintain its security along the Jordan River and, at a minimum, keep and expand all existing settlements. It is in this context, that the political right envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state on about 50-55 percent of the West Bank and most of Gaza. This constituency represents about 25-27 percent of the Israeli population. Although its supporters feel vindicated in their views because of the latest violence, their "solution" is a nonstarter. It ignores the Palestinians' territorial bottom line requirement which is the recovery of most, if not all, of the West Bank and Gaza. If actively pursued, this "solution" is bound to lead to a disaster.
The second group, comprised of the leftist political parties — the largest of which is Meretz — stands at the opposite pole. This group does not enjoy widespread support among Israelis (about 15 percent) because it relies on Palestinian good-will in reaching a logical arrangement, something for which the Middle East is not famous. This group, however, will support any initiative by the political center as long as it is acceptable to the Palestinians.
The third group includes the majority of Labor and all of the Shas (third largest after labor and Likud parties) with some support from moderate Likud followers. They represent Israel's mainstream political center and envision surrendering 93-95 percent of the West Bank. They insist on retaining the two blocks of settlements, Etzion (outside Jerusalem) and Ariel (outside of Tel Aviv) in addition to a few other large settlements — with a total of 150,000 settlers — while establishing a solid security arrangement along the Jordan River. Another part of their plan calls for dismantling the rest of the settlements spread throughout the West Bank. These settlements (about 100, with some 50,000 settlers) were mostly built between 1977-1987 under successive Likud governments for the express purpose of breaking up Palestinian territorial contiguity. The political center offers to settle the Palestinian refugee problem through compensation and rehabilitation. In addition, this group wants to evacuate all of Gaza and cede the Arab section of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority while maintaining the integrity of the United City. This plan is basically what former Prime Minster Barak offered last fall at Camp David. Two of three Israelis believe that Barak's offer represented their bottom line and came very close to that of the Palestinians. Its rejection by Arafat and the violence that ensued are what gave rise to a renewed call by a majority of Israelis for unilateral separation.

To prevent the current situation from exploding into full-scale war, Israel must take the initiative and enlist U.S. support to pressure Arafat to act responsibly for the sake of his people.
First, Arafat must end the violence. He must demonstrate that he is making a 100-percent effort. Thus far he has failed to do so. Arafat must understand that whether or not an Israeli plan is now in place to reoccupy Palestinian territory and dismantle his Authority in response to the next major terrorist attack, the Israeli public will demand it. No government regardless of its leanings will be able to withstand public pressure. Although this action will be costly for Israel in terms of human life and increase greatly the danger of a wider regional conflict, it will be nothing less than a complete disaster for the Palestinian people. For these compelling reasons, however politically unpopular, Arafat must arrest Hamas and Jihad extremists and instruct his security personnel to fully cooperate with their Israeli counterparts. By these measures he will strengthen the Israeli political center in the current national debate and prevent any Israeli action against the Palestinians forced by the extreme right. Arafat must sooner rather than later choose between his concern for popularity and the leadership necessary to save his people from a potentially disastrous development.
Second, Mr. Sharon must come to grips with one sad reality: The dream of Greater Israel is dead. It cannot and will not be revived, even with the greatest sacrifices. How much longer and at what cost must Israel remain hostage to the wishes of fewer than 50,000 zealots? In saying this, I am sensitive to their plight: Uprooting them is tragic. But it is nothing compared to the tragedy that will engulf all Israelis if a peaceful solution is not found. Sharon's only chance of preventing a bloodbath is by adopting, albeit gradually, the political center's solution espoused by his own coalition partners. Specially, he must begin by fully accepting the Mitchell Commission's recommendation to freeze the expansion of all settlements not part of the group that will eventually be incorporated into Israel proper. Next, he must unilaterally implement the political center's plan in stages. This is the only way to prevent Israel from becoming hostage to Arafat's or Hamas's whims. And depending on how the Palestinians react, Mr. Sharon should not rule out unilateral separation.
Finally, the Bush administration must stop vacillating and support the political center's plan. The President must show some leadership and reiterate his support of United Nations Resolution 242 and its applicability to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He must emphasize that the resolution calls for secure borders — hence the need for some territorial adjustments. In the same vein Mr. Bush must support a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem which is based on compensation and rehabilitation. These are basic principles that will please neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, but they will meet both sides' bottom line which previous administrations backed in one form or another. Without a clear U.S. public position on these issues, the already deteriorated situation will grow completely out of control, to the enormous detriment of our vital strategic interests in the region.
Pressure publically exerted by Mr. Bush and his administration will provide Sharon and Arafat with the political cover they need to change course. Time is running out. We may be one day away from the next major suicide bomber attack that will change everything.