Israel should consider unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and declaring its own borders if the current peace negotiations with the Palestinians fail, former ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, reviving an idea that has often been raised, and rejected, by Israeli leaders across the political spectrum.
Unilateralism has a lousy reputation, Oren admitted, in part following the 2000 pullout from Lebanon, but mostly because of the 2005 Gaza disengagement, following which thousands of rockets were fired at Israel from what has become a Hamas-run enclave. But the ex-ambassador’s Plan B — to be applied, he stressed, only if the Palestinians activate their own Plan B — would be different, he argued. Israelis taking their fate in their own hands, undeterred by the actions or intransigence of other parties, was the true fulfillment of the Zionist vision, he suggested.
“The two-state solution is the preferred solution. And if we can reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians that is permanent, legitimate and assures Israel’s security, that is of course of the preferable choice,” the New York-born historian-turned-diplomat-turned Middle East analyst told The Times of Israel in two recent exclusive interviews. “However, the Palestinians have intimated that if they can’t reach a negotiated solution with us they then have a Plan B, and their Plan B is a binational state. And I think it’s important that we also have a Plan B.
“The existence of our Plan B enhances the chances of Plan A,” he continued. “It’s certainly no guarantee. I believe the Palestinians have never indicated a willingness to meet our minimum requirements, which are recognition of Israel’s permanence and legitimacy as a Jewish state and end of claims and end of conflict.”
Oren, who was appointed Israel’s ambassador in Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and served in the position until September, refused to discuss in detail where a unilateral border should be drawn if Israel were to withdraw from the mostly Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Nor would he specify what exactly would happen to Jewish settlers who would find themselves on the Palestinian side of such a line. More interested in promoting a theoretical discussion than in issuing concrete policy recommendations, Oren said he had chewed over his ideas with individuals from “various points on the Israeli political spectrum” and with foreign officials.
If the current talks fail, the Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to advance their unilateral effort to achieve statehood by applying for membership in dozens of international organizations. But “going to international institutions is only the beginning of their Plan B, we have to understand that,” said Oren, who in January joined CNN as a Middle East contributor. “Their Plan B includes international sanctions, targeting our economy, completely delegitimizing us in the world.”
‘I would supplant the word unilateralism with Zionism. One good definition of Zionism is Jews taking their destiny in their hands’
Therefore, Israelis would be ill advised to sit around and wait for the Palestinians to corner them. “If we declare our borders, that creates a de-facto situation of two nation states recognized by the UN — we may not recognize one another, but they’re already recognized by the UN — that have a border dispute. And we would be one of dozens of pairs of countries in the world that have a border dispute.”
Even after Israel unilaterally declared its borders, it could still say that it was interested in reaching a final peace deal, under which border adjustments could be possible, he added.
Israel would only activate its Plan B if the Palestinians resorted to theirs, Oren stressed. “But it’s important that they know in advance that we have one, just like we know that they have one.”
What would an Israeli unilateral withdrawal look like, and how would Israel ensure that Hamas and other extremists not fill any vacuum, as they did in Gaza? Oren was hesitant to go into much detail but delineated a few principles.
“There are number of guidelines that are being discussed. I’m not the only one discussing it. This will determine what are [Israel's] defensible borders, what are the borders that encompass the maximum number of Israeli settlers. What would enable us to reduce, to the greatest possible extent, our control over the Palestinians? In any such move, Israel would of course maintain its military presence in crucial areas. And it would also ensure the continued unity of Jerusalem.”
Oren refused to discuss, even in the vaguest terms, where the border between Israel and the Palestinian state should run, and which settlements would come under Israeli sovereignty. But “the principle is maximum number of Israelis within the State of Israel and maximum protection of Israel’s security,” he said.
Oren is by no means the first prominent figure to contemplate a unilateral West Bank withdrawal. The late Ariel Sharon was publicly resolved to set Israel’s permanent borders, with the Gaza pullout only the first step. Much more recently, in May 2012, then-defense minister Ehud Barak caused controversy when he declared that if a permanent settlement proved impossible, Jerusalem should think of an “interim agreement” and consider unilateral action. “Israel cannot afford to remain stagnant,” Barak said. “It will be a difficult decision to make, but time is running out.” At the time, both Palestinian leaders and Israeli cabinet members rejected the idea out of hand.
Last Friday, the Maariv newspaper reported that Yoaz Hendel, a former media adviser to Netanyahu, is also working on a plan that calls for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.
Many Israelis are skeptical of unilateral moves because of the bitter experiences that followed the Gaza disengagement. Rather than the hoped-for quiet, Israelis saw Hamas take over the Strip in 2007 and launch thousands of rockets at Israel.
But Oren insists his current plan is “very different” from the Gaza disengagement.
“This is not Gaza redux. The only thing that it has in common is that Israel is taking its destiny into its own hands. I would supplant the word unilateralism with Zionism. One good definition of Zionism is Jews taking their destiny in their hands.”
During the Gaza pullout, Jewish settlements were ordered evacuated and Israel’s military presence was moved out; this would not happen again, Oren asserted. But if the Israeli leadership can’t find anyone to sign an agreement with, it should consider acting. “Unilateralism has gotten a bad name but it shouldn’t prevent us from taking the measures that may be necessary if we can’t reach a negotiated solution.”
Such a measure would not bring peace, Oren acknowledged. “I don’t know if remaining in the entire territories, with control over a great number of Palestinians and being exposed to increasing international sanctions — boycotts and delegitimization — I don’t know if that brings you to peace, either. It actually endangers Israel,” he said.
Withdrawing unilaterally from parts of the West Bank also “won’t end” the pressure from European Union and others in the international community pushing for a final-status agreement, Oren added. However, it would help take the wind out of the growing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, particularly in Europe, he predicted. “The goal is helping to maintain our integrity as a Jewish and democratic state, one whose security is preserved.”
Nonetheless, the idea of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal is highly unpopular not only with the Palestinians and the Israeli right (parts of which still seek a Greater Israel that annexes much or all of the West Bank), but also with the Israeli left.
“The proposal of Ambassador Oren is worthy of serious discussion — when the time comes. And right now is not the time. Because unilaterally withdrawing from the territories is the worst option, the worst except for staying there,” said Gadi Baltiansky, the director-general of the Geneva Initiative, a nonprofit promoting a two-state solution.
“It is preferable to do the right thing, which is to withdraw within the framework of a peace agreement,” said Baltiansky, who served as Ehud Barak’s spokesperson and was involved in peace talks during his premiership. “We know what is needed to reach that agreement. Those who support an agreement know what price they have to pay: it’s more or less the known positions … that [Secretary of State John] Kerry and [President Barack] Obama talk about. Whoever opposes this approach is not ready to pay the price for an agreement.”
Any Israeli leader who is also a Zionist would oppose a binational state, and, if unwilling to pay the price of a deal, would therefore sooner or later have to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank, Baltiansky said. Far better then, he argued, to achieve a negotiated accord. Under an agreement, Israel would secure continued international legitimacy and recognition of Jerusalem as its capital — even if the Palestinians decided to breach the deal and perpetuate the conflict. On the other hand, if Jerusalem opted for a unilateral withdrawal, it would get rid of the demographic problem, but not much more. The conflict would continue, and “no international body will recognize the borders that you drew unilaterally. You will not get international legitimacy, or recognition of Jerusalem.”
Uri Avnery, a former Knesset member and veteran far-left activist, went even further in rejecting the idea of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. “It’s stupid,” he said bluntly. “It’s considered a symptom of insanity when you do something and fail, and then try to do the same thing again and again,” he said, citing the Gaza pullout.
“Why do you want to withdraw in first place? If you want peace, sign an agreement,” Avnery told The Times of Israel. Unilateral withdrawal is the opposite of peace, he continued. “Peace is like sex, you need two to tango. To make peace with yourself [i.e., unilaterally withdrawing] is a kind of masturbation.”
For Avnery, anything but a mutually agreed peace deal would be considered by the Palestinians to be “a continuation of occupation” that would create opposition and obstruct peace rather than bringing it closer. “You can’t make peace on terms of continued occupation. What these people call unilateral withdrawal is continuation of occupation by other means,” he said.
Oren rejects this criticism as tautological and irrelevant. “The tautology is that of course you make peace with other people and not yourself. The irrelevance is that we’re talking about what happens if we can’t make peace,” he said.
“I’m aware there’s no perfect solution here,” Oren concluded. “Every option involves risks, untold circumstances. But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having what I refer to as the Zionist option: We do not outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making.”