The Palestine-Israel Journal is a quarterly of MIDDLE EAST PUBLICATIONS, a registered non-profit organization (No. 58-023862-4).
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Editorial Board

Hisham Awartani

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Boaz Evron

Walid Salem

Ari Rath

Zahra Khalidi

Daniel Bar-Tal

Ammar AbuZayyad

Galit Hasan-Rokem

Khaled Abu Aker

Galia Golan

Nazmi Ju'beh

Gershon Baskin

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Simcha Bahiri

Nadia Naser-Najjab

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Dan Leon

Anat Cygielman

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell

Vol. 13 No. 2, 2006 / Going It Alone?
Unilateralism VS. Negotiations


Creating Positive Facts on the Ground

A five-stage coordinated reciprocal unilateral strategy

     by Byron Bland and Walid Salem

While a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not on the immediate political horizon, many informed observers believe that the main features of what this settlement will entail — if any settlement is to be reached — are reasonably clear. It will involve a two-state solution based upon the following principles:

A. Jerusalem will be shared according to a mutually acceptable arrangement, with East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state, and the right of each side to exercise authority over its holiest sites.
B. The border between the two states will essentially follow the pre-1967 border, with mutually agreeable land swaps to accommodate heavily populated Israeli settlements.
C. The vast majority of Palestinian refugees will exercise their right of return within the newly created Palestinian state and receive compensation (or some other form of aid) from Israel and third parties.
D. The relationship between the new Palestinian state and Israel will be founded upon mutual commitment to the human security of the citizens of both states.
Those advocating these parameters of possible agreement do so without reference to the justice of the settlement or the legitimacy of the two sides’ deeply held, but conflicting, dreams and aspirations. Their contention is simply that this agreement represents the absolute minimum of what each side might be willing to accept rather than continue the struggle — that any significant deviation from it would cause one side or the other to reject it outright and thereby preclude the possibility of coexisting in relative peace.
Our concern in this paper is not with the features of this proposed agreement per se but with a deeper problem that is frequently overlooked. Even if the terms of settlement envisioned above were fully implemented, they would not necessarily produce real and lasting peace. For such peace to be a realistic prospect, the Palestinian entity that arises from the settlement must be a viable state. The emergence of a viable Palestinian state would not guarantee peace, but it is impossible to imagine a lasting stable peace if that state fails to be economically, politically, and socially viable.
This paper will explore how to create the set of relationships that would allow a viable independent Palestine living in peace with Israel to emerge. More specifically, we will examine the role that a coordinated strategy of reciprocal unilateral actions could play in overcoming the relational barriers between the Palestinians and Israelis that we and others feel impede this goal.
Our emphasis on unilateral steps arises from our assessment that, under present circumstances, a speedy return to the negotiation table in search of a comprehensive bilateral agreement is unlikely to bear fruit. To make real headway, Palestinians must not only find a way to combat terrorist acts against Israel, they must also signal their willingness to acknowledge that the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes within Israel will not be exercised. Israelis must not only end the expansion of settlements, they must also signal their willingness to accept the 1967 borders as the starting point for mutually acceptable exchanges of Israeli and Palestinian territories and the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. The current political climate precludes such an explicit trade of concessions.
Before we proceed further, however, we want to acknowledge an important asymmetry that complicates the political landscape and frames our analysis. While many Israelis recognize the ways in which their interests might be served if a viable Palestinian state materializes, most feel that they could live, albeit less securely and perhaps less prosperously, with the consequences of a failed state or no state at all. By contrast, the prospect of a failed Palestinian state or the perpetuation of the status quo is one that would be disastrous for Palestinians. Because the failure to produce a viable Palestinian state will weigh much more heavily on the Palestinians than the Israelis, our analysis will focus more heavily on what Palestinians might be able to do to create an outcome that they will find bearable.

The Dilemma in a Nutshell: The Dynamic Relationship among Viability Requirements

Three crosscutting issues identified in a comprehensive study by the RAND Corporation — permeability of borders, contiguity of territory, and human security — will determine the viability of an emerging Palestinian state. The centrality of these issues cannot be overstated. A Palestinian state that has sealed borders, discontinuous territory, and a high level of insecurity will almost assuredly fail. Indeed, failure to achieve any one of these features would ultimately preclude the long-term achievement of the others and, in all likelihood, doom the whole state-building project. The key question will be whether the territorial contiguity and permeable borders needed for viability can be achieved in a manner that enhances, rather than diminishes, Israeli feelings of security.
The dilemma Israelis face is both obvious and serious. The positive scenario one can hope for — that is, a viable Palestinian state meeting the challenges of good governance with enhanced security and positive economic performance leading to a higher standard of living and an end to anti-Israeli actions — clearly offers the most inviting prospect for most Israelis.
Alternatively, the negative scenario one can envision — that is, a non-viable Palestinian state, one consisting of separated enclaves, hemmed in by closed borders, with little prospect for social, political, or economic success — poses grave risks for Israel as well. This outcome will most certainly spark a Palestinian reaction that will include violent confrontation, organized armed resistance, and massive resentment.
For those who seek to avoid both types of unwelcome outcome, the immediate imperative must be, first, to create the trust and mutual confidence necessary to make the people and leadership in both societies strive to achieve the more positive scenario and, second, to make sure that the initial steps taken in the direction of this more positive scenario produce the type of viable Palestinian state that can offer the required benefits to its citizenry and lead to the type of long-term security that Israel demands.
Against this backdrop, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of unilateral disengagement comes into sharper relief. At the 2004 Herzliya Conference, Sharon argued that Israel, having no reliable Palestinian partner and no real possibility of reaching a final agreement, should launch a series of unilateral steps to enhance its own security and to further its own interests with regard to the Palestinians. The first move was to be withdrawal from Gaza. He made clear that his sole concern was with Israel’s welfare and not with any impact, positive or negative, on Palestinian interests. He maintained that this policy would allow Israelis to unite around the politically popular goals of maintaining Jerusalem as an exclusively Israeli capital, of retaining large Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and of guaranteeing the continuation of the “Jewish character” of the state. It would also put the ball in the Palestinian court because they would now face the task of demonstrating to peace-seeking Israelis, and the world at large, that they were capable of self-government.
The second logical step in Ehud Olmert’s policy (Sharon’s successor) most political analysts are now predicting — would be further Israeli disengagement, at some point, from those settlements east of the security barrier. This territory could then be fully turned over to the Palestinians, who would now control Gaza and part of the West Bank. Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora, chief executive officers of the Israel/Palestine Center on Research and Information, have argued that this move, perhaps along with trilateral interim arrangements with Jordan concerning security, would, in effect, give birth to a Palestinian state — a state, we hasten to add, that would be to the liking of many, if not most Israelis, but few Palestinians.*
At this point, the process of unilateral disengagement would be apt to stall. Having withdrawn from the heavily populated Palestinian areas of the West Bank, Olmert would be in a strategic and political position to seal the borders and station the Israel Defense Force to maintain Israeli security, if necessary, through incursions into Palestinian territory. In fact, he would have accomplished his well-understood goal to disengage from any negotiation or dialogue with the Palestinians, leaving it for them to make (or more likely not make) their state viable, while leaving Israel with maximum control over future events. He would have chosen de facto to deal with a failed Palestinian state in favor of minimizing the potential negative consequences to his own citizens.

Coordinated Reciprocal Unilateral Action

Given the all-too-plausible nature of this bleak scenario, the critical question facing Palestinians (as well as Israelis and Americans or others who have any concern for Palestinians’ welfare) is how to change it. What can be done to move the disengagement process onto a track that leads toward permeable borders, contiguous territory, and human security for both Israelis and Palestinians? For peace — as opposed to managing the predictable violent fallout of a failed Palestinian state — to have a real chance, the Israelis and Palestinians must create the relationships that make these outcomes a real possibility.
In an insightful paper entitled “Arms Control without Treaties?” George Bunn and David Holloway argue that coordinated reciprocal unilateral actions are capable of producing incremental steps that can lead to informal agreements that can be later codified into formal treaties. Drawing important lessons from the events that saw a thawing of the Cold War, they describe two principles that have relevance to our concern with trust-building in the context of the Middle East search for a two-state solution. First, Bunn and Holloway illustrate how unilateral actions that are coordinated around common interests can establish a reciprocity that helps to improve the relationship between the parties and thus promote implicit and substantive agreements. Second, they show that unilateral actions can reduce the distrust of an adversary if they signal a willingness to recognize and pursue common interests.
To these experience-based lessons, we add an insight drawn from social psychological theory and research on barriers to dispute resolution. This research suggests that disputants may sometimes find it easier to make a particular concession unilaterally, on the grounds that it serves their self-interest, than to make the same concession in the context of bilateral negotiation. In negotiating exchanges of concessions, parties bear the burden of satisfying themselves and their constituencies that their own concessions were matched with concessions of equal value and significance by the other side. When acting unilaterally, this burden — a task made more difficult by the tendency for parties to devalue concessions offered by the other side and overvalue their own — is removed.
Taken together, these lessons suggest that unilateralism, if coordinated around reciprocal gestures that signal the mutual recognition of common ground, can provide a basis for optimism and trust. While need for trust, and the problem

A shared Jerusalem (Photo by Mahfuz Abu Turk)

of building it, merits detailed consideration, we shall only emphasize here that trust is built when both parties articulate visions of the future that includes a place for the other that they judge to be minimally “bearable.” In all likelihood, this place will be less than what they sought, and it will, almost certainly, offer less than what they feel is their just due. Nevertheless, it is a place that offers an everyday life for one’s family and immediate community that one could live with. For trust to emerge, I must feel that a bearable future for me is encapsulated within the future you are pursuing, and you must feel the same about the future that I am pursuing. The parties do not necessarily need to agree on a particular vision, but both need to feel that, if the other side’s vision came about, they could live with it.
It is now time to put the various pieces of our analysis together and to pursue their implications. The immediate task at hand is that of developing a strategy to create the trust and mutual confidence required for the parties to move forward on the journey to a viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel. Palestinians must be made confident that the difficult actions they undertake will, in fact, move them toward the goals of permeability of borders, contiguity of territory, and human security and dignity that make for a viable state. Israelis, in turn, must be made confident that these Palestinian achievements will also serve the main interests of their citizens — that is, a true end to the Middle East conflict and the opportunity for them to live secure normal lives, not only in the immediate future, but for all of the foreseeable future as well.
The strategy we advocate unfolds in five steps, the first three of which should be implemented in parallel Palestinian and Israeli tracks.
1. Laying the foundation for trust. Both Palestinians and Israelis of goodwill must start with an explicit and public commitment to the principles of settlement with which we began this paper. Polls have consistently indicated that a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians would accept this outcome, albeit in many cases reluctantly, if they thought that the other side intended to live within its provisions and, in the case of the Israelis, if the other side agreed to end the conflict once and for all, with the certainty that no new demands would be made. Beyond the particulars, the baseline for both Palestinians and Israelis is that the future — whatever it might be — offers them secure, normal lives within a secure, stable state.
2. Establishing trustworthiness. The settlement that we have outlined will produce peace only if a viable Palestinian state emerges in the process. We have argued that, at least at the present time, the best way to move forward towards the creation of a viable Palestinian state is not negotiation but coordinated unilateral action. Each side must determine what it can do by itself to move beyond the second disengagement toward the conditions that the RAND study identifies for viability — permeable borders, contiguous territory, and human security for Palestinians and Israelis.
3. Broadening the domain of trustworthiness. Palestinians and Israelis must next identify goals for which they currently do not have the capacity to achieve alone, and for which they, therefore, need the support and assistance of some other partner. They must then determine how to use the things they can do to build the partnerships they need to do the things they can’t do.
The next two steps will call for greater measures of collaboration between the Palestinians and Israelis. The parties should not abandon the parallel tracks of steps 1-3, but they will need to begin engaging each other in more serious and intentional dialogue.
4. Establishing reciprocity. With the two plans of action that they can launch unilaterally in hand, the next task for Israelis and Palestinians will be to put these two together, aligning and meshing them wherever and whenever possible. Some of the actions that each has identified may conflict with what the other side is planning. The goal here is to make each strategy more effective.
5. Rectifying injustice. Any settlement with a realistic chance of being enacted will leave both sides feeling that they have been denied certain aspects of the justice they deserve. The desire for justice is a universal human attribute. But the real question that people face in their daily lives is not really whether a particular social or political arrangement, including, most notably, the status quo, is just or not. Instead, the decision is whether the injustices suffered in the interests of preserving peaceful and harmonious relationships are worth that price. The weight of such a decision rests much more heavily on some than others. In recognition of that reality, we encourage both Palestinians and Israelis to come together in serious and extended dialogue to ask themselves whether there is a way to lessen the injustices and sense of loss that their actions impose upon each other.


Baskin, G. & Siniora, H. (2005, September 1). The Baskin-Siniora Peace Plan: Creating the Two-State Reality – The Six-Point Plan.
George, A. (1998), “Strategies for Facilitating Cooperation,” George, A., Philip J. Farley, & Alexander Dallin (eds.) U.S.-Soviet Security Cooperation: Achievements, Failures, Lessons. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
The RAND Palestinian State Study Team (2005). Building a Successful Palestinian State. Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation.
Sharon, A. (2004, December 16). PM Sharon’s speech at the Herzliya conference.

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