This is an appropriate time, one week before the official launching of disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, to revisit the concept of unilateralism that underpins this move. I would argue that, taking into account circumstances on all sides, this is on balance the best approach today and for the immediate future.
Undoubtedly a bilateral, negotiated peace process with strong American backing is preferable. But that does not appear to be a viable option for the next few years. A unilateral approach, on the other hand, is viable and feasible. While it will not produce a comprehensive peace settlement, it will at least generate progress and help set the stage for eventual peace. The alternative to unilateralism is probably stagnation or deterioration–not a peace process.
Israel is invoking unilateralism because a large majority of Israelis want progress toward a two-state solution that enables Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. It is doing so because most Israelis seek in any way possible to stop Palestinian suicide bombings. Most Israelis feel relatively little empathy for the Palestinians and have little faith that the current Palestinian leadership can deliver on an acceptable two-state solution.
This explains why, in the course of the past five years, Israelis have elected, and reelected, a tough and aggressive leader, Ariel Sharon, who has little or no trust in Arab peace partners. It explains why the public and institutions like the High Court of Justice have more or less compelled Sharon, against his initial inclinations, to build a security fence on or near the green line and to initiate the dismantling of settlements he himself helped build. This explains why the fence is rapidly taking on the characteristics of a unilateral border that in most places is not very different from the "settlement blocs" border traced by the Clinton and Geneva plans. This is why even Sharon, who is roundly accused by the Palestinians of leaving Gaza precisely in order to stay in the West Bank, no longer talks about the mountain heartland settlements with their 50,000 inhabitants as a viable long-term investment.
The singular exception to this healthy unilateralist trend among the majority of Israelis is Jerusalem, where the fence becomes a wall and its path threatens to start the next intifada by cutting Palestinians off from one another. Only in Arab East Jerusalem does misplaced religious and national sentiment, coupled with cynical political considerations, still cloud Israelis’ judgment and divert it from the path of demographic good sense.
The Palestinians are the "object" of Israeli unilateralism because of all the opportunities they’ve turned down, from 1937 to 2000, to enter into a two-state solution. Israel invoked disengagement because Yasser Arafat preferred a strategy of violence and corruption to one of state-building. And, finally, we have arrived at unilateralism because the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who is indeed a man of peace and moderation, has not yet persuaded enough Israelis (and American administration officials) that he can deliver on peace and stability in real time, i.e., before the demographic issues overwhelm both sides.
Finally, unilateralism has become the name of the game because President George W. Bush has endorsed it. He has taken this step because his priorities do not permit him to commit American resources to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the near future. His administration’s Middle East order of business requires that he deal first with Iraq, where he is in deep trouble, Iran, for which he has no solutions, and democratization in places like Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, where he has no magic formula for confronting dynamic Islamist movements that exploit democratization to move into leadership positions. There is no room in this complex of interests and dilemmas for the huge risks embodied in shepherding another Israeli-Palestinian process.
Hence, whatever lip service Bush pays now and after disengagement to the roadmap and a Palestinian state solution, he is much more likely to get behind the idea of a second disengagement, meaning additional partial progress (that could conceivably be clothed as phase two of the roadmap), than to push Sharon or his successor into comprehensive negotiations.
But suppose Bush does opt to pressure Israel to accept a real peace process. Suppose Sharon either changes his mind or is succeeded by an Israeli leader who wants to negotiate. And suppose Abbas consolidates his rule and emerges as a viable interlocutor. Taken together, these are not likely near-term developments, but even if they materialize I doubt a successful negotiated comprehensive settlement is possible. The Palestinians will be offered a few percentage points less territory than last time and, true to their legacy, will reject the offer yet again. And the Israeli political system, which has precipitated the early demise of every single ruling coalition for the past 17 years over the Palestinian issue, will prove incapable of taking more than a single, partial step in the right direction before yet another government collapses.
In other words, under even these best case–and unlikely–circumstances, a unilateralist or fragmented approach may well continue to characterize the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the coming years.