Commentary Magazine


Can “Coordinated Unilateralism” Bring Mideast Peace?

In 2006, after Roger Clemens left the Yankees to join the Houston Astros only to miss the playoffs as the Yankees won their division, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a humorous fake story in which Clemens pretended he was still playing for the Yankees. Astros catcher Brad Ausmus says: “I want to break it to him that he’s not a Yankee, but I’m afraid that it’s the only thing that keeps him going at this point.”

I always think of this story when I read about former Senator George Mitchell’s time as President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, charged with restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2009. Mitchell, who was involved with the negotiations that led to peace in Northern Ireland, attempted to simply copy and paste his experience there onto his new task in the Middle East. It was a monumental mistake, and led to certain failure and to the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl to beg Mitchell to please, for the love of all that is good and holy, stop comparing Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to Gerry Adams and David Trimble.

Last week, Diehl got his wish, as Mitchell appeared at an event organized by The Atlantic and the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. At one point in his speech, in the course of making a bizarre historical error, Mitchell actually raised a good point. He said:

Every sensible Arab leader today would gladly accept that 1948 plan if it were still available. But it is not still available, and never again will be. Since then, the plans offered to the Palestinians have been less attractive, and they have been rejected as well. I told both chairman Arafat and president Abbas directly that there is no evidence—none whatsoever–to suggest that the offers are going to get any better in the future. To the contrary, all of the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction. They have got to sit down and participate in direct negotiations and get the best deal they can even though it’s not 100 percent of what they want.

I’m not sure exactly when Mitchell told Yasser Arafat this, but presumably it was while the latter was still alive. Which means Mitchell turned out to be wrong. It’s true that the Palestinians will not be offered the 1948 plan again—nor is there convincing evidence they would accept that offer, though it’s surely plausible. But it is without question that the Israeli offers got better, not worse, over time. Arafat was offered all of Gaza, a capital in eastern Jerusalem, and 97 percent of the West Bank by Ehud Barak. About eight years later, Abbas admitted he was offered the same deal but with land equaling 100 percent of the West Bank.

Now, of course, Mitchell would be on more solid ground to make that promise, as it would be difficult for Israel to offer more than 100 percent. But if you were a Palestinian leader, and the offers just kept getting better and better with each time you rejected them, why would you take Mitchell’s advice? Mitchell’s premise is that the Palestinians have something to lose by continually rejecting compromise.

As it happens, Michael Zantovsky, the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, has an interesting article in the current issue of World Affairs that indirectly addresses this. Zantovsky thinks the two sides should engage in what he calls “coordinated unilateralism”—moves that each side implicitly accepts would be part of a final-status agreement, but since the two sides can’t seem to get to a negotiated settlement, should be taken with the other side’s tacit approval. Imagine, he explains, this sort of coordinated unilateralism was employed in the case of the Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and parts of the West Bank:

And imagine that Palestinians could have sought UN membership with the tacit understanding of Israel, in exchange for the international endorsement of the solution of the refugee problem based on the return of refugees to the Palestinian state combined with elements of material compensation. Further unilateral withdrawals of Israel from the West Bank could follow, combined with unilateral Palestinian restraint in building its own security forces. Israel could begin to unilaterally dismantle settlements inside the West Bank while the Palestinians could close their eyes to the continuing construction in, say, Ramat Eshkol. Neither side would be forced to withdraw from its own red lines, and yet with each coordinated unilateral move the conflict would be one step closer to a solution.

Zantovsky admits this is “hardly an ideal solution, but looking around us we can see a number of similar arrangements of frozen conflicts, in which people are allowed to live their lives and for the most part prosper.”

Both Mitchell and Zantovsky want to push the Palestinians closer to building their state, but it would also require the Palestinians to accept the existence of a Jewish state next door. Can the Palestinians and their supporters accept such parameters?

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