Disengagement must lead to a negotiating process

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement was born of three factors: a conviction that Israel has no partner for bilateral negotiations; an understanding that the Israeli public wishes its government to take an initiative that extricates Israel from the deadlock created by the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the violent intifada; and an illusion that after this limited step is implemented, it will be possible to freeze everything and avoid any further steps. This illusion is likely to be very short-lived.

Other than removing the Gaza Strip settlers from harm’s way by evacuating them from the area, it is doubtful whether disengagement will bring any longer term benefits unless it is part of a process. That process must, first, create and sustain hope among the two peoples that the future will be better than the present, and second, take real steps toward realization of the most important goals of the two peoples: safeguarding the existence of the Jewish state, security and recognition for Israelis; and end of occupation and normal life and sovereignty for the Palestinians. In the absence of such a process it is quite probable that failed expectations on the two sides will lead to a new crisis and new rounds of violence.

This awareness is gradually filtering down to the Israeli public and polity. But there is still a division between those who support a process based on a series of unilateral Israeli steps, possibly reciprocated by unilateral Palestinian steps, and proponents of negotiated settlements, whether partial or comprehensive.

The unilateral path has two advantages: it is not dependent on Palestinian cooperation and on the way the domestic Palestinian arena develops, and it gives Israel full control over determination of the border between Israel and the Palestinian political entity. These advantages are more then balanced by a long list of disadvantages.

First, unilateralism is a defeatist concept that ignores the changes in the Palestinian Authority and denies them a chance to mature and create the right environment for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The presumption of the supporters of this approach is that the death of Arafat and his replacement by Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the Palestinian leader who opposed the militarization of the intifada from the outset, changes nothing on the Palestinian side. This is a self- fulfilling prophecy that almost guarantees the failure of the new Palestinian leadership’s efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority and ensures the rise to power of the forces within the Palestinian people that oppose reconciliation with Israel.

Second, the unilateral approach ignores the effect that post-disengagement events may have on the political feasibility of implementing further unilateral steps. If disengagement is followed by a new outbreak of violence, the Israeli public will probably perceive it as a failure and will be reluctant to embrace any further "adventurist" initiatives that might have similar results. The opponents of the disengagement plan would argue that their positions are vindicated, while the Israeli extreme right wing would get an important political boost.

One of the most interesting developments in Israeli thinking in recent years is the growing understanding of the importance of international legitimacy. As a result Sharon, the leading figure among Israeli politicians who followed Ben Gurion’s slogan "what the Jews do is important, what the gentiles say about it is much less important," is now looking fervently for ways of endowing disengagement with international legitimacy. The present disengagement plan, as the first phase of a unilateral process, may get international legitimacy if the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is complete. Further unilateral steps will probably not gain international legitimacy because they determine unilaterally the border between Israel and the Palestinians. On the other hand, every negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement has inherent international legitimacy. Even the Iranian regime, a bitter enemy of Israel that opposes its existence, has stipulated several times that if the Palestinians (or S! yria) reach a peace agreement with Israel, they will accept it.

Even the implementation of the present disengagement plan cannot be fully unilateral. The closer the date of implementation, the clearer it becomes that coordination and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and third parties is essential for the success of the plan. Yet adherence to the "religion" of unilateralism makes this extremely difficult, and if the only idea Israel is capable of proposing to the Palestinians and the international community is more unilateral steps, it will become practically impossible. The message that Israel is delivering to the Palestinians is that it does not need and does not expect any cooperation.

Forgoing the negotiating process is a certain way of missing the chance that the disengagement plan will jumpstart a process of settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–an opportunity that was enhanced by the death of Arafat and the changes in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Launching a negotiating process would mean embarking on a difficult path with no certain results. But it would take advantage of this opportunity, while at the same time retaining the possibility of going back to unilateralism in case of failure.