After Gaza Challenge of Israeli unilateralism

Two profound assumptions underlie Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. The first is that Israel’s overriding value is the preservation of its Jewish character and majority. The second is that the conflict with the Palestinians is not amenable to a final agreed resolution, now or in the foreseeable future.

The net product is that Israel should unilaterally “disengage’’ from areas of Palestinian population density and retrench behind a demographic barrier (the wall). Withdrawal from Gaza represents a retreat from no more than 6 per cent of territories occupied in 1967, but it reduces the Palestinian “demographic threat’’ by about a third. Gaza will now be enclosed in a triple fence, and with the completion of the “separation wall’’ in the West Bank in mid-2006, Israel’s 5 million or so Jews will be insulated from the 3.8 million Palestinians in the occupied territories - with tens of thousands of Arabs in East Jerusalem suspended in a politico-legal limbo.

No Palestinian patriot can fail to be moved by the Gazans’ joy at deliverance from 38 years of ugly occupation. But the withdrawal highlights two vital characteristics of the coming phase in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. First, unilateralism has replaced negotiation; second, conflict management has replaced conflict resolution.

Unilateralism was Sharon’s response to the need to act, maintain the initiative and keep creating facts on the ground. There is little conviction today on any side that a return to Camp David-style final negotiations could lead to anything but failure. For the Palestinians there is no self-evident paradigm to replace that of a comprehensive negotiated settlement based on a two-state solution that involves a resolution of outstanding issues, including a return to 1967 borders, more or less, a capital in East Jerusalem, and a settlement of the refugee problem.

The prevailing winds after Gaza will not be towards this classic two-state solution. The international community has already effectively opted for a new interim phase disguised under the rubric of a Palestinian state “with provisional borders’’, as specified in the so-called road map.

This posits a test of Palestinian good governance as a precondition for progress to a final settlement, and contemplates a deferral of vital issues such as the future of refugees and the holy city of Jerusalem until some unspecified date. But no Palestinian leadership can accept a state with provisional borders that defers these two most emotive issues. Any leader who accepts this would be immediately faced with strong and possibly violent opposition, not only from Islamist and nationalist elements in Palestine itself, but from the refugee and diaspora constituencies. This leaves the Palestinian Authority/PLO in a quandary. Final-status negotiations (even if Israel agreed to them) are unlikely to produce a stable resolution. But a new interim phase risks deep internal splits and jeopardises inalienable Palestinian rights regarding Jerusalem and refugees.

There is one potential alternative, and that is to adopt a policy of “parallel unilateralism’’. This builds on Sharon’s unilateral approach and turns it to the Palestinians’ advantage. If the essence of unilateralism is the ability to act free from mutual constraints and obligations, then the Palestinians could benefit from Israeli unilateral acts by absorbing whatever territories are vacated, developing their means of self-rule and building up their capabilities without the shackles of Israeli pre-conditions. This would entail no concessions on vital rights or points of principle.

It is still very unclear how any Israeli unilateral process will continue on the West Bank and how “success’’ in Gaza will be judged on both sides. But as the deep logic of Israel’s demographic fears and the absence of an agreed final settlement will continue to impress themselves on both parties, parallel unilateralism may be the only temporary, if as yet fuzzy, way out. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the West Bank separation wall will be completed. Israel will have to decide what will go behind it and what will remain implanted deep in Palestinian soil. The latter will be unsustainable and will be withdrawn sooner or later. The Palestinians will be left with large chunks of the West Bank and all of Gaza. From this perspective it would be better not to accept a “state within provisional borders’’ and maintain the PA as the governing authority as long as land is occupied and the refugee issue and Jerusalem are left pending.

But the conflict will not be resolved. The issues outstanding will fester and generate constant friction. There will be new calls for armed struggle inside Palestine and from the diaspora. Israel will respond in kind, and the whole affair will be but a new page in the conflict. A cynic would argue that this would be true to the existential nature of a struggle that has already straddled three centuries. —The Guardian