Why Israel Should Not Adopt Unilateral Initiatives

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 343, June 1, 2016

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The moribund state of the peace process has prompted the suggestion of two opposing unilateral “solutions”: either Israeli withdrawal from, or the annexation of, parts of the West Bank. Neither would be wise policy. A partial withdrawal would likely increase, rather than decrease, Palestinian terrorism, as Palestinians would be motivated to push harder for total Israeli withdrawal. Annexation would inflame passions against Israel among the Palestinians, and engender opposition to Israel abroad, where it would be taken as bad faith in Israel’s commitment to peace diplomacy. 

With respect to the Palestinians, the current situation can be described as stagnation clouded by terrorism: In 2002 it was Palestinian suicide bombers, and in 2016 they introduced terrorism at knife-point.

The surge in violence is not necessarily linked to the peace process, or lack thereof. Hamas arch-terrorist Yihye Ayyash, for example, wreaked havoc even as Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were engaged in intense negotiations with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Back then, a media establishment sympathetic to the Oslo Accords minced its words, calling the victims of terrorism “victims of peace.” But it was terrorism, plain and simple.

Over time, we have learned that even when terrorism appears to have ebbed, the quiet reflects not so much a diminishment of Palestinian terrorism as the ability of the Israeli military and the Shin Bet security agency to thwart it.

With little optimism for the future of the peace process, it is hardly surprising that many in Israel are distressed. The prolonged stagnation, compounded by the inability to present any viable alternative that would lead to comprehensive change, has bred suggestions meant to promote various worldviews, all under the guise of “partial steps seeking to meet current challenges.”

An in-depth study of these suggestions reveals, however, that they do not solve the problems at hand. They use false arguments to promote unilateral initiatives that will not only fail to help but can cause great harm.

In one corner, there are those who argue that although a two-state solution cannot be brokered at this time, it is in Israel’s interest to take steps toward that goal, even without the agreement of the other side. These advocates are willing to pay a hefty price up front for meager results that they hope will eventually work in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state. To that end, they favor the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli residents from Area C of the West Bank (a portion of territory categorized under the Oslo Accords as under full Israeli control), while allowing that the IDF will retain freedom of operations in this area.

This move is a roll of the dice that could tear Israeli society apart. Its proponents are prepared to take that risk in exchange for no real achievements on the international stage or among the Palestinians, who are sure to keep fighting what remains of the “occupation.” Terrorism will only worsen, as it has after every Israeli concession — but this time, without the benefit of an agreed-upon border. The concession would be the result of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal to a line that has no international legitimacy.

Some advocates of military withdrawal promote it as a means of gaining approval abroad, but experience suggests that this is a false hope. In 2005, proponents of disengagement from the Gaza Strip predicted that that unilateral move would win Israel precious points in the international community. As it turned out, that credit expired after a few months.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there are those who advocate annexation of Area C — the imposition, in other words, of Israeli sovereignty over a portion of the West Bank without defining the broader Israeli-Palestinian endgame.

The annexation idea suffers from the same weaknesses as the withdrawal idea, possibly to an even greater extent. Should Israel attempt to annex Area C, the international community would punish her mercilessly. Some parties are likely to push for statements, perhaps even sanctions, harsher than anything yet seen, possibly including official boycotts of Israel.

The global community will never accept Israel’s explanations of why such a move was necessary or justified. Everyone will claim that the change in the area’s legal status was intended to accomplish only one thing: to torpedo any chance of real peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

This would be a difficult charge to counter. The unilateral imposition of Israeli sovereignty over Area C would certainly prompt the Palestinians to slam the door on any further talks. The measure would therefore amount to a de facto declaration of a binational state.

Practically speaking, a change in sovereignty would do little to serve Israel’s interests. Nor would it benefit Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, whose primary need is security. The Shin Bet, for example, finds it easier to operate in an area under military control than under Knesset control.

When standing on the edge of a cliff, it is wiser to keep still than to step forward. This is always sound advice, and it is doubly so in the chaotic Middle East. It is obvious that the differences between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are so significant that any negotiations held at this time are doomed to fail. Moreover, this is not the time to embark on useless experiments or risky unilateral initiatives, either in the hope of preparing the ground for an eventual Palestinian state or in the hope of thwarting it. It is wiser to defer action than to take unilateral steps that threaten to make a bad situation worse.

Israel should focus instead on improving the lives of the Palestinians, as well as on how to navigate the situation the day after the departure of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as he has no heir apparent.

Simultaneously, it is imperative to determine the motives for the current wave of Palestinian terrorism and find ways to stop it. Israel also has to take action to counter the hostility leveled at it from around the globe. Some of this hostility is fueled by the claim that Israel’s expressed support for a peace process is mere lip service, especially when Israel undermines future negotiations by approving settlement expansion.

There are no simple solutions to these complex problems, but any steps taken must adhere to one vital principle: that a wide public consensus is more important than the details of any individual proposal. This is critical, if Israel is to maintain and bolster its internal resilience ahead of future threats. The greatest danger in implementing a proposal that discounts legitimate objections expressed by the public is that it would create a deep rift in society. Nothing is more important than ensuring that Israel is strong enough to weather the challenges ahead.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is the Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He was a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, Military Secretary to the Defense Minister, and Director of the Research Division in Military Intelligence.

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Israel Hayom on May 13, 2016.


BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror
Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror

Former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel and the Head of the National Security Council. Served 36 years in senior IDF posts, including commander of the Military Colleges, military secretary to the Minister of Defense, director of the Intelligence Analysis Division in Military Intelligence, and chief intelligence officer of the Northern Command. Author of three books on intelligence and military strategy.