The panel discussion "Negotiations Vs. Unilateralism" took place at the 59th annual conference in November, 2005.
Steve Solarz, Daniel Kurtzer, Gideon Grinstein, Robert Malley
The panelists addressed the continuing violence, settlement expansion and Gaza withdrawal during their debate over how best to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Steve Solarz framed the dialogue as a “sobering realism,” saying that in the past the political emphasis was solely on negotiations, but present circumstances suggest unilateral action may be what will lead both sides to final status talks.
Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer said that while no one favors unilateralism as a primary means, if coordinated it could be effective. Referring to the disengagement from Gaza, Kurtzer said unilateral action could be mutually beneficial. He suggested there was more progress with the disengagement than in any previous period and argued that Palestinians now control more territory than if they had negotiated the disengagement. Kurtzer noted that unilateral action does not exclude bilateral negotiations, and that they could actually have re-enforcing objectives.
Drawing on his experience in the Israeli government, Gideon Grinstein approached the debate from the viewpoint of the Israeli Prime Minister. Grinstein said Palestinians believe time is on their side in negotiations, which makes it difficult for an Israeli to close a deal in his typically short term of office. Most Israelis see the end of occupation, not specific territory, in the interest of Israel and they have no desire to let Palestinians dictate the rules. Grinstein also argued that it is not a simple choice of one or the other but rather “off-the-table” arrangements with a third party that can complement negotiations.
Robert Malley described the current period as “un-named,” meaning there is no Oslo or Intifada to define the time. He predicted that negotiations will take many years and could be difficult for leaders to sell to their people. On the other hand, unilateral action gives leaders more leeway to move forward and defend actions. And, he warned, “unilateral action will be the only process that will get us anywhere, but it won’t get us anywhere good.” While the instant gratification of unilateral action is tempting to policymakers, he said the long-term ramifications lead to a situation more dangerous than the current condition.
The panel was asked why Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could not end terrorism and how Israeli leader Ariel Sharon could defend settlements and the security barrier. Kurtzer argued that both sides know their obligations and should fulfill their promises. The terms negotiated in the Roadmap are not obsolete even though little progress has been made, rather the peace process is dependent on the initiative taken by Sharon and Abbas. Kurtzer insisted that no bilateral peace process has been removed from the table. He went on to say he rejects the idea of a waiting game, where each side is claiming the other side must make the first move. The sequential order is far less important than the need for each side to fulfill their obligations.
Malley noted the absence of a Palestinian voice in the debate and argued that it may not be prudent of Abbas to completely crack down on militant groups. Instead, he said Abbas would engage these organizations in the political process, which will produce popular pressure to cease violence. Malley said, if Hamas was active in the form of a political party it would make the violent use of weapons politically costly and therefore less attractive.
According to Malley, the Palestinian territories are a hybrid of a state and national liberation movement, making it difficult to persuade armed militias to give up weapons under the occupation. Grinstein looked at the will and ability of Abbas to end terrorism. He concluded the idea of an unarmed Palestinian state is irrelevant and insisted that trained Palestinian security guards are the key to fighting terrorism.
The panel was asked why Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could not end terrorism and how Israeli leader Ariel Sharon could defend settlements and the security barrier. Kurtzer argued that both sides know their obligations and should fulfill their promises.
Elizabeth Tomber, an intern with the Middle East Institute Communications Department and recent graduate of the University of Dayton, wrote this Summary.