New Realities in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Point of View column from June 2006 issue of Centerpoint
Beneath the uncertainty of the Israeli-Palestinian situation lie two new and increasingly dominant realities. First, the idea of Greater Israel—born in the wake of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967—is dead politically, psychologically, and economically. And, in one of Middle Eastern politics' most fascinating ironies, it was put to rest by Ariel Sharon, its principal architect. Sharon pursued Greater Israel throughout most of his political career, taking steps—either as minister of defense, housing, or foreign minister—to ensure the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem would remain permanently under Israel's control. Then, late in life, recognizing the need to improve Israel's demographic, political, and security position, Sharon boldly orchestrated a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year.
Sharon had stood like a colossus, straddling Israel's political system and dominating its security strategy. Now he lies in a Jerusalem hospital, while his successor Ehud Olmert works to pursue Sharon's policy. Olmert possesses a more supportive coalition than his predecessor but lacks Sharon's prestige and historic legitimacy. Nonetheless, he is both empowered and trapped by that legacy. If Sharon killed the idea of Greater Israel, then Olmert is determined to bury it.
He will get considerable support for this enterprise. The Israeli public and elite seem determined to separate themselves from the Palestinians and the security wall is among their unilateral measures to achieve it. The question now is not when or whether Israel withdraws from West Bank land, but how much it deems necessary to retain for security reasons.
Second, the prospects of a negotiated, conflict-ending agreement that meets the core needs of Israelis and Palestinians also is dying. The will, urgency, and trust required by leaders are simply not evident. The election of Hamas has retarded any chance for formalized Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And time is not neutral, let alone an ally, of this process.
In this bleak environment, the United States should preserve the option of a negotiated solution by supporting Olmert's unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank but drawing redlines that would refuse to accept Israel unilaterally imposing final borders. The United States also should work with key Arab states and the Europeans to support extending the informal ceasefire and prevent an economic collapse in the territories, which only would radicalize Palestinians. Sadly, we may have little choice but to accept that outcomes, rather than solutions, now rule the day in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.