Mideast Peace Requires Withdrawal From Unilateralism

By Daoud Kuttab

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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As much as some Palestinian groups would like to claim that Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza this week is a direct result of their military actions, the majority of Palestinians don’t buy into such a simplistic narrative. Nor, however, is the withdrawal a product of what we believed to be the alternative path to liberation from Israeli occupation, a negotiated settlement.

As jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti stated last week from his Israeli prison cell, it was probably a combination of many factors that resulted in the Israeli decision to leave Gaza, a statement with which most Palestinians agree. But while there may be a lack of clarity about the catalyst for disengagement, there is a clear understanding of the manner in which it has been planned and carried out — and the deleterious effects it may have on the prospects for peace.

While the withdrawal from Gaza is certainly a welcome first step in ending the occupation, the unilateral manner in which Israel went about it has set a dangerous precedent. Face-to-face negotiations based on universally accepted guidelines and with the support of the international community might be more difficult to put into action, but such cooperation can produce long-term solutions, whereas the Gaza disengagement is likely to result in nothing but long-term postponements.

Despite months of Palestinian and international entreaties, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon steadfastly refused to negotiate, coordinate or reveal plans for the disengagement and what is to follow. In the months leading up to this week’s withdrawal, the most commonly heard observation in the West Bank and Gaza was that Israelis negotiate among themselves about the future of the Palestinians.

Israel’s unilateral decision to disengage from Gaza, independent of any larger bilateral or international framework, is unlike any in modern history. Even the Israeli decision to leave southern Lebanon in 2000, while taken unilaterally, at least tacitly involved the United Nations. The withdrawal was in keeping with Security Council resolution 425, and it was the international body that demarcated the Blue Line and verified Israeli withdrawal to positions behind the de facto border.

Israel and its steadfast supporters in the United States have failed to provide even the most basic facts as to what is going to happen next, or how this week’s events relate to the broader peace process. Washington’s quick-footed attempt to paint the unilateral Israeli decision as part of the Road Map has failed to convince many Palestinians. The majority opinion here is that the peace process will go into deep freeze once Israel completes its withdrawal from Gaza.

The unilateralism that has dominated Israeli policy on Gaza has been quite convenient for the Sharon government. It doesn’t require the mess of actual negotiations, and it is politically safe because the politicians can decide exactly how far to carry out a particular course of action. Unfortunately, this kind of policymaking is as shortsighted as it is expedient.

It is simply naive to think that the partial return of our occupied lands will end Palestinian demands for full liberation and independence. The most popular T-shirt being sold now in Gaza sports the Palestinian flag emblazoned with the logo “Today Gaza, Tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has himself picked up the refrain, making it the rallying cry for this week’s celebrations in Gaza.

Sharon need only look east to Iraq to see what kind of problems he will have if he insists on following his irrational and ineffective unilateral policies. Perhaps for a while he actually succeeded in convincing people that he is interested in negotiations, but now that Yasser Arafat is no longer around for Sharon to blame, it is not so easy for him to fool the world. When the dust settles from the Israeli disengagement, Sharon will no longer have a cover for his unilateralism.

To be fair, a go-it-alone approach is convenient not only for an Israeli prime minister reluctant to make substantial compromises during negotiations, but also for hardline Palestinians who see multilateralism as a means of forcing them into adopting unpopular positions. Combating the unilateralist tendencies among segments of Palestinian society will be just one of our tasks as we focus on rebuilding of our lives and our future.

The challenge of building a new tomorrow, however, is made much more difficult when we don’t know what to expect the day after disengagement. The withdrawal from Gaza can be a real and meaningful step toward a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinian — but only if our leaders forego the unilateralist tendencies that for too long have resulted in policies of convenience.

Daoud Kuttab is director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.

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