Unintended Outcomes, or How Unilateral Becomes Bilateral

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published June 16, 2006, issue of June 16, 2006.
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Middle East politics follows just one law — the Law of Unintended Consequences. A corollary states that the law’s power is particularly great when someone seeks to evade it — for instance, when a leader acts unilaterally, imposing his own will, to keep his opponent from disturbing his plans.

If these axioms needed more proof, it was provided last weekend by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, when he decreed a referendum for late July on the so-called prisoners’ document. Drafted by a group of security prisoners in an Israeli prison, the document is a proposed Palestinian national platform that implies recognition of Israel. Abbas’s referendum call, a thoroughly un-Abbaslike display of backbone, is intended to show Israel and the world that the Palestinians support a two-state solution and that Abbas personally has a mandate to negotiate in their name.

In more than one way, that dramatic gambit is the unintended outcome of unilateral Israeli moves, including last summer’s pullout from Gaza and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s “convergence” plan (“contraction” would be a better translation) for unilateral withdrawal from part of the West Bank.

The immediate goal of the referendum decree is to undo the damage done by the victory in Palestinian legislative elections in January of the Islamic Hamas movement, which rejects any recognition of Israel. If Hamas cries uncle before July 26 and agrees to the prisoners’ document, Abbas will argue that the P.A. government now recognizes Israel, as per international demands. If not, the referendum will go ahead, and Abbas expects victory. One late-May poll reportedly showed 85% support in the West Bank and Gaza for the document. If anything near such backing holds up in the actual vote, Abbas will declare that he, not Hamas, represents the Palestinian public.

Either way, he is gambling that he can show, as publicly as possible, that there is a Palestinian partner for peace talks with Israel. That is a direct challenge to Israel’s unilateral pullout policy, which has been founded, under Ariel Sharon and now under Olmert, on the premise that Israel must set its borders on its own because there is no Palestinian partner.

Yet the Middle East’s one iron law applies to Arabs just as much as to Jews. Abbas’s own strong-arm tactic already has led to Hamas and Islamic Jihad inmates in Israeli jails withdrawing their support for the prisoners’ document. And the referendum decision is apparently feeding the escalating violence between Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza — violence already threatening to turn into open civil war between Hamas and Abbas’s own Fatah faction.

Even if Abbas holds off that danger and wins the referendum, the prisoners’ document is nothing to make Israel celebrate. It was put together by the top figures in Palestinian groups who are jailed in Israel as a bid to end the conflict between the factions, which has escalated from words to gun fights since Hamas’s victory. Foremost among the prisoners is Marwan Barghouti, serving five life sentences for his role in terror attacks. Barghouti is the most popular leader in the younger generation of Abbas’s Fatah movement. By endorsing Barghouti’s initiative, Abbas is apparently seeking to end the rifts in Fatah that contributed to its election loss in January. Both men have openly favored a two-state solution. But Abbas has denounced violence regularly, while Barghouti has supported “armed struggle” (translation: terrorism) as a means of reaching independence.

The prisoners’ document affirms “the right of the Palestinian people… to the option of resistance in the occupied territories of 1967.” That implies a ban on attacks inside Israel proper — but it is a leap backward from Abbas’s previous stand, and doesn’t meet Israel’s demand that the P.A. disarm terror groups before negotiations.

Likewise, acceptance of Israel in its pre-1967 borders is only half-explicit, contained in the document’s call for a Palestinian state in the occupied territories alone. And the paper’s demand to “cling” to Palestinian refugees’ right of return to Israel proper commits Abbas to a position far more rigid than what he was willing to accept a decade ago, in a draft peace plan he worked out with then-Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin. (That proposal included recognition that “realities… created… since 1948 have rendered implementation of this right impracticable.”)

Still, a victory in the referendum, or in talks with Hamas beforehand, will allow Abbas to claim a mandate for negotiating. Olmert then would be likely to face increased pressure from Europe, from Egypt and Jordan, and possibly even from America to enter talks rather than dictate the lines to which Israel will pull back.

That’s Olmert’s nightmare. He first announced his support for unilaterally giving up land in a December 2003 interview — either as a stalking horse for then prime minister Sharon or, more likely, as the source of an idea that Sharon grudgingly accepted. He had reached the recognition — shattering for him as a lifetime rightist — that Israel could not continue to rule over the Palestinians.

Back then, Olmert said that an agreement with the Palestinians was unacceptable because it would mean “returning to the 1967 borders, crushing Jerusalem” and having to resist “international pressure to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees.” That was well before anyone imagined a Hamas election victory. The kind of agreement that Olmert regarded as dangerous was one similar to the Geneva Accord — another Beilin initiative, put together unofficially with relatively moderate Palestinians, not Hamas rejectionists.

True, the intractable Yasser Arafat was still the P.A. president at that time. But when Arafat died in November 2004 and was replaced by Abbas, Sharon and Olmert did not switch from the Gaza pullout plan to final-status talks. Abbas was too weak to be a negotiating partner, it was argued. Moreover, he had not moved to crack down on terrorist groups, a precondition for talks, but merely declared a cease-fire. Unilateralism remained the order of the day.

Yet acting unilaterally does not mean that the other side remains in suspended animation. A survey last September by leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki showed that most Palestinians regarded the Gaza pullout as a victory for Hamas and “armed struggle.” That surely helped Hamas in the legislative elections soon after. Nor was Hamas harmed by Abbas’s inability to deliver on his own strategy of restarting talks with Israel on final status and Palestinian independence.

The Palestinian election pushed Abbas further into the corner. So did the Israeli election in March, which gave a mandate to Olmert for another unilateral pullback — this time on the West Bank, presumably to a line close to Israel’s security fence and far from the 1967 lines on which Abbas insists.

The unplanned outcome is a newly bold, risk-taking Abbas, seeking international legitimacy for negotiating — on a platform that will be more difficult for Israel than his own positions a year ago would have been.

Already there’s evidence that Olmert is responding to that new reality. According to a Ha’aretz report this week, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry are readying a proposal to convert the unilateral convergence plan into a bilateral agreement with Abbas, under which a provisional Palestinian state would be established in the land from which Israel withdraws.

The borders that Olmert once saw as final would therefore also be provisional — meaning that Israel would be prepared, in theory at least, to pull back further in a final status accord. When Olmert originally proposed a pullback, that’s not at all the outcome he intended.

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