While Israel may have now buried former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it is still far from having buried with him the idea with which Sharon ultimately came to be most strongly associated: unilateralism–the notion that if no partner for peace could be found, then Israel should determine its own fate, draw its own borders, and extricate itself from a conflict it has long wanted no part in. It was ultimately to this end that Sharon broke from the Likud, and indeed the settlement movement that he had long been the patron of, and established Kadima, the party that would give him the representation in Israel’s Knesset that he needed to carry out the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
Sharon had been lying in a coma since early 2006, and despite the abject failure of unilateral disengagement from both Gaza and Lebanon, Sharon’s ideas have not lain dormant with him. Having been a territorial maximalist for most of his political life, unilateral withdrawal from territory may prove to be Sharon’s most significant parting gift to Israel and the region.
Today there is no shortage of politicians in Israel who still espouse the virtues of this strategy. Most notable among them is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who in a sense first pioneered unilateralism with his disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000. He was still voicing partial support for unilateral disengagement from the West Bank in 2012. And the idea remains particularly popular among many in Israel’s defense and security establishment. Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon, both former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency continue to champion this policy, as does Omer Bar-Lev, former head of the general Staff Reconnaissance Unit and a Labor Party member of Israel’s parliament.
Just this weekend Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was outlining the possibility of withdrawal from much of the West Bank in the not-unlikely event that Israel’s latest round of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority produce no tangible results. In his obituary on Sharon, written for CNN, Oren writes, “A growing number Israelis are asking, ‘What happens if the process fails?’ One solution could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.” Oren suggests how things could be done differently this time, a sign that unilateralists do indeed recognize where the policy has unraveled in the past. Oren explains, “As in the disengagement from Gaza, the United States would endorse this move, but unlike in Gaza, most Israeli settlements would remain within Israel, and Israeli troops would still patrol strategic borders. Of course, the preferable solution is two states for two peoples. But if that proves unattainable, then Israel can still end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace.”
Unilateralism’s great strength is that it refuses to have any delusions about Palestinian intransigence. It refuses to allow Israel to be indefinitely held hostage by the kind of Palestinian rejectionism that has thus far rendered all attempts at a negotiated peace futile. Instead, the unilateralists advocate simply withdrawing to borders of Israel’s choosing. The problem here, however, is that unilateralism is still buying into some of the most fundamental and mistaken premises of the dovish camp in Israel. That is the belief that the conflict is about territory, and that Israel can trade land for peace by giving the Palestinians an agreed upon allotment of territory. Since the Palestinians have so far failed to outline precisely what amount of territory they would require before ending the conflict, negotiations on land for peace have thus far failed to deliver.
The unilateralists seek to bypass stalled negotiations through simply handing over territory to the Palestinians without the framework of peace talks, thus creating a de facto two-state solution. Yet this is a mistake. The two-state proposal is itself an Israeli creation and the Palestinians have never come close to unanimously acknowledging it as a preferable end goal. Israel can create a two-state scenario without Palestinian cooperation if it wants, but there’s no reason to think this will do anything to pacify them.
Both with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli unilateral withdrawal was viewed by the Islamists as a retreat and a sign of weakness. Israelis had demanded nothing in return for the territory they abandoned, they had simply fled. Proof enough for the extremists that terror pays and that Israel’s resolve will always break eventually. In this way unilateral disengagement has emboldened Israel’s enemies to step up their war on Israel, which is not territorial in nature, but existential.
Unilateralists are, of course, not simply driven by the desire to extricate Israeli forces from the nightmare of having to police a hostile population. They are also galvanized by serious concerns about demographics and Israel’s international standing. Yet, increasingly it looks as if the fears about the Palestinian demographic time bomb have been drastically exaggerated. Besides, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank has little to do with Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. Palestinians already have their own separate polity in the form of the Palestinian Authority and they elect their own government, or at least they do as and when that government stands by its obligations to allow them to do so.
Nor does unilateralism do anything significant to lift Israel’s international legitimacy. When Israeli civilians have come under rocket fire from both southern Lebanon and Gaza, not only has the international community not been sympathetic to Israel, when Israel is inevitably forced to responded to these attacks, the degree of condemnation of this self-defense against terror has been chilling. Indeed, the international community still maintains that Israel is occupying Gaza on account of the fact that it controls Gaza’s borders, an absurd position given that Egypt also controls a border with Gaza, one it guards just as tightly.
In the event that Israel withdrew from the majority of the West bank and pulled back to its security barrier, not only could it not expect any international recognition for its borders, but experience suggests that it should expect the West Bank to be turned into the same kind of lawless terror launch pad for Iranian proxies that Gaza and southern Lebanon have already now become.
Sharon may be buried, but unilateralism is still alive and well. In the future Israelis may yet come to deeply regret not having buried this ideology with its most renowned practitioner when they had the chance.