The paradox of unilateral initiatives

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The usual logic of conflict resolution dictates that the restoration of trust between Israelis and Palestinians begin with an effort by people of good will on both sides to formulate compromise solutions, and engage in joint enterprises, that can serve as CBMs, or confidence building measures. If the two sides have difficulty sitting down together, a third party can convene them and even mediate their deliberations. This is the way the necessary trust and confidence were created in the course of efforts spread over the past two decades that produced the Oslo agreements. It stands to reason that if and when Israelis and Palestinians again reach political agreements, this is the way it will happen.

But right now this doesn’t seem to work well. After two years of armed conflict and the seeming disappearance of any capacity for mutual communication by Israelis and Palestinians, attempts to restore trust by talking to one another appear to be fruitless, and at times even counterproductive. The reason appears to involve the two sides’ conflicting narratives: at Camp David and Taba in 2000-2001 the process reached a point where efforts to resolve the national/religious/historic narratives–regarding the refugee issue, i.e., the events of 1948, and the Temple Mount/Harem a-Sharif issue–were the main items remaining on the agenda. But these are the most difficult issues. Add to them now a new clash of narratives–over who started the current violent conflict and why–and it’s easy to understand why most serious attempts to restore trust through bilateral discussion either deteriorate into angry recriminations or end up in agreements that are admirable but marginal.

Yet Israelis and Palestinians are tired of conflict and are looking for a way out.

I recently attended yet another of the many efforts at renewed dialogue. A joint attempt to draw up an agreed formula for renewed peace talks generated a Palestinian initiative to fix exclusive responsibility for the events of 1948 on Israel, along with a relatively new Palestinian demand: that even after peace and an “end of conflict” pact, Palestine and Palestinians be allowed to sue Israel for compensation for all the “evils” of the occupation since 1967.

The Israelis present at the meeting saw these demands as antithetical to their narrative and designed to prolong, rather than end, the conflict, and rejected them. Even Jordanian and Egyptian participants in the meeting were baffled by the Palestinian attitude. When the Israeli side suggested that the parties might be able to unite around the Nusseibeh-Ayalon formula or the Ziad Abu Zayyad formula–two recent efforts that seek to present an agreed middle ground and feature more moderate Palestinian attitudes regarding the right of return and the Temple Mount/Harem a-Sharif–they were informed by the Palestinian “peace camp” that these formulae were non-starters: not a single prominent Palestinian would sign on to them.

While such meetings are important and must be continued, for the time being they do not improve trust; indeed, they may be damaging it. It is only when we look to the realm of unilateral, rather than bilateral initiatives, that some progress in confidence building appears possible.

This is the paradox of unilateral initiatives. Given the current atmosphere, what cannot be done through dialogue and agreement might be possible if each side works on its own. Two examples will suffice, one from each side.

Originally Palestinians undertook, in accordance with Oslo, to prevent terrorism and provide security to Israelis. They failed. Now Palestinian militant organizations are discussing initiatives to declare a unilateral ceasefire, not out of concern for the welfare of Israelis, but rather in view of what they consider to be enlightened self-interest. If a unilateral ceasefire works, it’s also good for Israelis, and can build trust.

Israel originally agreed under Oslo to withdraw from territories and, implicitly, to cease building settlements on those territories–and failed. Now more and more Israelis are discussing withdrawing unilaterally from part of those same territories. They are doing so not to please the Palestinians or comply with agreements, but rather out of what they consider to be enlightened self-interest: to guarantee their own security (particularly against suicide bombers) with a “separation fence,” rid themselves of the evils of occupation, and respond to the Palestinian demographic threat. While Palestinians are troubled by these Israeli unilateral initiatives, they also recognize that they can benefit from them, by taking possession of additional territories currently occupied by Israel and witnessing the removal of the most provocative settlements.

These unilateral initiatives cannot replace a peace process. They cannot and should not even replace the kind of track II meetings, however problematic, described above. But in the absence of trust and confidence, they are in many ways the only non-violent game in town. If they stabilize the situation and reduce violence by lessening friction, they can contribute to a confidence-building process that can eventually return the two parties to the negotiating table in an atmosphere of enhanced trust.

Hence they should be encouraged by all interested parties.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of Bitter Lemons.

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