Last Spring my father-in-law and I made a bet: he said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip was a one-off effort to relieve Western pressure and offload a long-time albatross. I maintained it was a precursor to broad Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, which would be Sharon's next move. He acknowledges that I won, though frustratingly neither of us can remember what we wagered.
Today Sharon's successor Ehud Olmert met with President Bush at the White House to discuss, among other things, his intention for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank in the event that a negotiated settlement does not emerge in the near-term. I like Olmert's plan, and here's why:
- All unilateral withdrawal would do is make the inevitable terms of a peace settlement a reality. The parameters for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement have been well-known since the Camp David talks during the final weeks of the Clinton Administration in 2000. Six years later, instead of progress there's been only stagnation and regression. After Arafat's death prospects seemed to improve, only to deteriorate once Fatah disappointed the expectations of the Palestinian people and Hamas took control. Under these circumstances, to exclude the possibility of any resolution to the conflict short of negotiated settlement is to be resigned to continued strife with no end in sight.
- The prospect of unilateral withdrawal may push the Palestinians back to the bargaining table. If the Palestinians are as adamant as they claim in opposing imposed borders, they cannot credibly refuse to meet the basic criteria that have been laid down for a resumption of negotiations, including Hamas' recognition of Israel's right to exist. If they continue to stand aloof, that only strengthens Israel's claim that the unilateral option is their only recourse.
- Even a unilateral withdrawal won't truly be unilateral. Even if the Israelis are not negotiating directly with their Palestinian counterparts, as they lay plans for their withdrawal consultations with the US, the UN, Europe and Russia will amount to a de facto mediation between the needs and wants of the two parties. The West will push for boundaries that will minimize Palestinian provocation, and - in the interest of sustaining Western support - Israel will listen.
- The bottom line is that Israeli withdrawal will remove a massive source of conflict in the Middle East. If Israel withdraws, they will yank out 90-95% of the painful splinter that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The primary source of the Palestinian people's 58 year lament will have been removed, and I don't see the world having much patience for the remaining 5-10% of lost territory. In fact, for years the prospect of straight-up Israeli withdrawal from the territories was thought to represent an unqualified Palestinian victory. The Palestinians will argue that a unilateral withdrawal without the massive international economic and political supports that would come with a negotiated settlement will leave them in the lurch, but six years after Camp David and four months after Hamas' victory, it will be clear that they had and squandered other options. Moreover, should a reasoned Palestinian leadership emerge, the economic aid and international backing could as easily be put in place after Israeli withdrawal instead of as part of a settlement.
Sure, a negotiated settlement would sound and feel better, and is less likely to elicit unintended consequences. But as compared to another decade or more of grinding stalemate, unilateral withdrawal is a better option on all sides.