November 7, 2005, 9:00 am - January 20, 2019, 12:24 pm


1761 N Street NW
Washington, 20036 (Map)

The panel discussion "Negotiations Vs. Unilateralism" took place at the 59th annual conference in November, 2005.


Steven Solarz, Daniel Kurtzer, Gideon Grinstein, Robert Malley


Ladies and gentlemen, if we could have your attention, we’ll commence what I gather is the final session of this conference, devoted to the question of how best to proceed in the effort to resolve the differences in the region and in particular the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Whether it’s best, as we’ve always tried in the past, to do it through a process of negotiations or perhaps under existing circumstances to move forward on the basis of unilateral gestures and initiatives by each of the parties.

I think all of the speakers are pretty much known to everyone here. Our first speaker will be Dan Kurtzer, the former American Ambassador to Israel and Egypt. I have to tell you I’ve had a longstanding personal tie to Ambassador Kurtzer. His parents used to live in the congressional district I was privileged to represent back in Brooklyn. I recall vividly on one occasion when he was the political counselor in Cairo that his parents asked me if I would bring him some kosher chopped liver. I think never before in the history of congressional kowtowing to constituents has a member of Congress gone further to fulfill the wishes of his constituents. I was very pleased to give Dan the chopped liver when I arrived in Cairo. Whether or not I got the votes of his parents, I don’t know, but I hope it didn’t hurt.

In any case, after a long and very distinguished career in the diplomatic service of the United States, we’re now in a position to get the utterly unvarnished views of Ambassador Kurtzer. I look forward to hearing what wisdom he has to share with us on this really very important issue.

First Panelist

Daniel Kurtzer

Former US Ambassador to Israel

Thanks. What I’m going to do today is very briefly argue the case for what might be called coordinated unilateralism, which when I told Steve Solarz I was going to do this, he said of course it’s an oxymoron, and he’s right. It is an oxymoron. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing to be thinking about.

I think none of us favors unilateral approaches as our primary means of trying to resolve this conflict. Dan Shiftan, an academic from the University of Haifa who’s one of the founding fathers of the unilateral separation schemes, in fact has said that unilateralism is everyone’s fallback position because you always favor something else and when that doesn’t work then you argue for unilateral solutions.

But I’m going to make the argument on the basis of two features. Number one, the dominant activities in the environment over the past 12-13 years since Oslo, which have created problems that have not been fixed in the course of any of the bilateral engagements. You heard some of them at the end of the last session, as Aaron Miller recapped some of the problems on the ground with regard to asymmetries of power. I’ll just kind of tick off eight or nine of them. But until we can figure out a way to deal with the problems, which have come forth during bilateral engagement, it would seem to be foolhardy to go back into bilateral engagement only to do a repeat performance of those problems.

The second is I think there are some successes on the positive side of the recent Israeli disengagement, which if we can not only build upon them but actually improve it through the coordination mechanism, which worked only partially during the Israeli disengagement, we might actually have a way forward that would give us some room to maneuver until we had been able to address some of the problems in the bilateral approaches.

What are those issues in bilateral negotiations in the past 12-13 years, which beset the parties? Let me just tick them off, we can come back during the course of the questions and answers.

There are basically four asymmetries. Number one is asymmetrical diplomatic strategies and tactics. Israel is constantly focused on interim, step-by-step approaches. Palestinians want to get to a final status. You constantly have this clash in diplomatic strategies whenever the two sides get together.

Secondly, there’s an asymmetry in what might be called the politics of the two sides. Israel is a well-established state. It has institutions of statehood, a vibrant democracy. Palestine is a state in the making, weaker institutions, civil society in the making, lacking the developed infrastructure of statehood, which would make it a more equal negotiating partner with Israel.

Third, asymmetrical power, something Aaron Miller talked about. Israel has a well-established and preponderant edge in military power vis-à-vis Palestinians. Therefore Palestinians have unfortunately resorted too often to the weapon of the weak, which is terrorism.

The fourth asymmetry is military strategy and tactics. In both cases, Israelis and Palestinians have approaches that fail to assimilate political objectives into their military strategies. Israel has a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism doctrine that doesn’t have a strong political component. Palestinian terrorist groups have resorted to terrorism without having a very well framed idea of what political objective it’s supposed to accomplish.

In addition to these four asymmetries, you have the persistence of unilateral acts by each side, which have accompanied the bilateral process. Israeli settlements on the one side, terrorism on the Palestinian side. I don’t equate the two morally but the fact is that each side engages in them unilaterally in a manner that upsets the bilateral process.

A sixth factor is the lack of accountability in every effort to achieve agreements through bilateral negotiations. There has never been a process in which a side has been held accountable for its failure to perform the obligations, which it undertook to perform as a result of entering into those negotiations. Even at the time when the United States, for example, a couple of years ago put a monitoring group on the ground, there was no accountability. No one paid a price for not carrying out the obligations or performing the obligations they were supposed to perform.

A seventh factor is weakness of people-to-people activities. We tried to correct this after the Wye River agreement. Congress put $10 million into people-to-people activities. That money has not been renewed. So some activities got off the ground, which stimulated people-to-people contacts, but you have essentially what was called in the previous session an elite set of negotiations which has not yet permeated the societal structures on the two sides.

Eighth, a self-criticism: I’m not sure the United States has played its role as effectively as we could have played as a helpmate and an honest broker. Aaron addressed this. Rob Malley has done in his writings. Sometimes we have been involved too little and too late and not with enough of the kind of power that we can bring to bear to help the two sides reach an agreement.

The final factor which has beset the bilateral process, again referred to earlier, is the lack of a clear endgame. We seem to know that we want to get to an agreement but the bilateral negotiations have been wandering aimlessly without knowing exactly to where they are heading.

It would be enough on the basis of these weaknesses to say that we need an alternative approach. But conversely, the success of the unilateral disengagement process initiated almost two years ago and successfully fulfilled a couple of months ago suggests that at least in the interim, until we can address these systemic issues in the bilateral negotiating process, it may be useful to think about further unilateral steps.

The successes of the unilateral disengagement, of course, are self-evident. More progress was made in disengaging -- in removing settlements, settlers and the Israeli military from territories occupied in 1967 – in the period of disengagement than in any previous period in the history of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This was done as a result of unilateral Israeli action. Palestinians now have control over substantially more territory than they might have had had there been another short-term, step-by-step interim agreement reached in a bilateral negotiating venue.

So you have now negative factors, which militate against a resumption of bilateral talks. You have a positive factor in the guise of the recent disengagement. The question then is, if the parties really want to go back to bilateral engagement, why don’t we allow them to do so? The answer is, why not?

The fact is that no bilateral process has been removed from the agenda. If the parties want to resume the Roadmap, it is available for them to pursue the Roadmap. The Roadmap is a performance-based mechanism in which the parties have laid out and agreed upon a set of mutually reinforcing objectives, which they know must be fulfilled irrespective of the fulfillment of the responsibilities of the other side. So if the parties want to go back to a bilateral process, they can do so in the form of the Roadmap. The fact of the matter is that neither polity right now is ready to do so.

If they want to do something less dramatic than the Roadmap, Tenet and Zinni, the two work plans on security are also still on the table. They have never formally been withdrawn. But they too require performance on the part of both parties, and both parties have also not expressed the willingness or manifested the willingness to carry out the obligations in those as well.

And as we’ve said before, in the two critical areas of unilateral actions on the part of the two sides, there’s also been no indication of a change in the fundamental positions of the parties there either. Israel has not made a commitment to completely freeze settlement activity and the Palestinian society is still producing terrorists, which are not being reined in by the Palestinian Authority.

So the availability of bilateral mechanisms, bilateral possibilities are still there. The fact of the matter is the two sides are not quite willing to do so.

It’s for these reasons – negative, positive, the failure to address the past issues in the negotiations – that have suggested to me that if we can improve upon some of the unilateral issues that beset the disengagement process through earlier and better coordination, we might stand a better chance of seeing some progress in the period ahead. Let me just mention a few as my final comments.

Israel, in the disengagement process that was just implemented, defined all of the core issues unilaterally and then very late in the game sought to coordinate the implementation or execution of disengagement with Palestinians. In a subsequent or a second disengagement, it might be better for Israel to define objectives as Palestinians are defining their own objectives, and for the two sides to engage in a coordination of unilateral actions earlier, rather than trying to reach agreement on them. In fact, it is unlikely, for all the reasons I just cited, that they would reach agreement. But nonetheless there would be a transparency available through this set of bilateral or coordinated unilateral approaches, which would allow for some of the deficiencies in the unilateral disengagement to be addressed.

Secondly, the coordination of unilateral activities on the two sides would also give the Palestinians an opportunity to correct perhaps one of the most significant dysfunctions within their polity right now, which is the fact that they are simply not ready for independent statehood. There has not been an adequate state-building exercise that has reached fruition within Palestinian society. It’s en route, some successes have been registered, and some progress has been made. But we can use the time in the period ahead for Palestinian institutions to grow stronger and to be ready for that moment in which Palestinian statehood is declared.

So the suggestion I lay out for you in very staccato form and outline form is either embark on a very challenging process of addressing nine or ten or 15 systemic problems that have beset the bilateral negotiating process, fix them fast and develop the political will to actually perform the obligations that the two sides undertake when they negotiate bilaterally; or to encourage the two sides to coordinate unilateral actions designed on the one hand to encourage further withdrawals by Israel from settlements and further movement by Palestinians to build the viable institutions of statehood.

Steve Solarz: Dan, thank you very much. Our next speaker will be Gideon Grinstein. I think he’s known to most of you here from the Israeli side. He’s been deeply involved in the negotiating process. We look forward to hearing what your thoughts are on this question.


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Second Panelist

Gideon Grinstein

Founder and President, Re’ut Institute

Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here.

What I’d like to do in the next few minutes is ask you to try to put yourself in the seat of the prime minister of Israel, as he or she looks at the process and decides what is their strategy, what is their course of action. So one option has been for the last 15 years, the option of negotiations.

I’d like to say one more thing. In Israel, it is widely agreed today that ending occupation of the Palestinian population – and the key word here is population, not territory – is a vital and existential Israeli interest. Because it is an Israeli interest, the fact that it may be subject to Palestinian consent through negotiations is heavily compromising. That’s the point of departure here.

So if you’re the prime minister of Israel and you want to be looking at the situation, and you’re considering whether to negotiate, I believe you will probably be able to frame four fundamental problems.

Number one, there are some Palestinians out there who fundamentally reject the right of Israel to exist and will take action to effectuate their vision or ideology. Terrorism.

Number two, there are enough Palestinians out there that think that time is working on their side. That means that tomorrow’s agreement is better than today’s. When they look at Geneva and compare it to Taba, and compare Taba to Clinton and Clinton to Camp David, they are validated. It is very hard for each and every one of you to buy a home from someone who thinks that tomorrow the price is higher.

Number three, you, if you’re the prime minister of Israel, are sitting on top of a very weak political system -- short and unstable tenures, fragmented legislature and fragmented executive -- which means that you build coalitions around your national project. So, if you want to negotiate, you build a coalition for negotiations. But you’re dealing with a Palestinian system that is even weaker, bordering on dysfunctionality. So if we’re really talking here about negotiations and comprehensive negotiating and comprehensive agreement, this is one weak system on our side engaging a much weaker system on the Palestinian side, trying to put together this very big project.

So in high likelihood you’re thinking through your tenure, your 18 months, 24 months tenure – that’s the average in the last 15 years – and in high likelihood what you will experience is a combination of two things. Number one, there will be violence during the process and there will be terrorism in key moments under the process. Number two, it will be very difficult for you to close the deal. The reason is because people on the other side think that time is working on their side. Therefore there’s pressure to expand the agenda, escalate the demands and prolong the negotiations. Between those two dynamics – your inability to close the deal and the violence – you’re being shredded politically. To one form or another, this is the story of Rabin, Peres, Barak and Netanyahu.

If you subscribe to the understanding or the notion that it is in Israel’s vital interest to end the control over the Palestinian population, then this is bad news. This is the fundamental logic that drives more and more Israelis to look or engage the idea of unilateral actions. It is not Sharon, Sharon is not the first. Rabin in 1993-94 introduced the idea. Barak made it one option of national security, an option that eventually Sharon ended up taking.

But when you go unilateral – and by the way, I’d like to distinguish here between two concepts. Unilateral is an action that is only dependent on yourself. If we’re talking about Israeli unilateralism, it’s only dependent on Israel. But what Israel has been doing is actually off-the-table strategy. In an off-the-table strategy, you’re dependent on coordination with third parties – in this case America and Egypt and the World Bank – but not on the primary other party, which is the Palestinians.

So when you look at the option of going off the table, a number of other problems kick in. Number one, you are perceived and you may actually be reinforcing the radicals and undermining the moderates on the Palestinian side. Number two, again from the perspective of Israel, there are no sustainable gains in terms of international legitimacy. The Sharon government told the Israeli public that if we only get out of Gaza the world will get off our back. Bad news, it’s not happening, because before we even started getting out of Gaza everybody was talking to us about the West Bank, and if we do the North West Bank they’ll talk to us about the South West Bank. If we do the South West Bank they’ll talk to us about Jerusalem. If we do Jerusalem eventually they’ll talk to us about things within Israel.

Then the next thing is that people are saying to you, if you’re willing to do so much unilaterally, why don’t you negotiate and get something in return? Again, in high likelihood, if you do this off-the-table option, you will be facing a combination of withdrawing under fire during the process and pressure to resume negotiations. This is the conundrum of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. You want to go across the table to negotiate, you’re facing all these challenges – combination of terrorism and difficulty to close the deal – you’re being pushed off the table, and then off the table other problems kick in which actually push you back across the table.

Most people have been thinking about those options as mutually exclusive, unilateralism or negotiations. But in fact I would say that they are complementary. A credible and viable off-the-table option for Israel may actually reinforce its prospects of getting an agreement across the table, because the one thing that Israel can do is turn the table on the notion that time is working on the Palestinian side. I believe that Israel can transform its strategic position with regard to the Palestinians. I do not subscribe to the fact that the Palestinians are the underdog. I think that Israel is the underdog in this conflict, because in this world it is not only about military and economic might. Yes, when you look at this through the perspective of military and economic might, the Palestinians are the underdog. But the one entity that actually has significant factions that seriously question the legitimacy of the other entity, it’s on the Palestinian side. They have the power of “no.” No to this and no to that.

Ambassador Kurtzer here spoke about the fact that it is the Palestinians that want to go to final status and Israel doesn’t want to. But actually during the negotiations in the Barak days, it was Israel who pushed for permanent status. But this permanent status thing is very amorphous. We also demanded finality of claims, and finality of claims is something very real. We demanded three things: A) to get a list of all Palestinian claims from Israel. That’s a very simple request. We never got it. B) That all of these claims will be addressed, to the extent they will be addressed, within the agreement. C) Following the agreement, there would be one claim between the parties, and that is to implement the agreement.

I’ll give you an example of one outstanding issue between us and the Palestinians to show you how sensitive this issue is. We demanded it would say in the text of the permanent status that the Palestinian state that will come into being will realize the right of self-determination of all Palestinians. The Palestinians agreed to this entire phrase except one word: all. It’s a key word here, because it represents your willingness to engage the notion of finality of claims.

That brings me back to the issue of negotiations or unilateralism. If you’re on the Israeli side, you want to think about whether you negotiate or you go unilateral or off the table. You need to ask yourself three questions, after you’ve done this analysis.

Number one, what are we talking about? It’s one thing to talk about a comprehensive agreement, it’s another thing to talk about an interim agreement. Maybe we do have a partner for an interim agreement but no partner for comprehensive agreement, or vice versa. If we’re talking about an interim agreement, the Palestinian side is talking about a comprehensive agreement, there is no match here.

Number two, who are you talking to? Israel formally has been insisting it is just talking to the PA. On the Palestinian side, we should talk to the PLO. For some of us it may sound like the same but it’s not for the Palestinians.

Third, what is the time span we are planning to engage? Because a lot of the ideas that are being put on the table will take years to negotiate, conclude, ratify and implement. But an Israeli prime minister on average has only two years in power.

So once you’ve gone through this, other questions kick in: legitimacy, delivery capability, and responsibility. Are you talking to the entity that is actually responsible on the ground?

All of these questions make up together this dilemma whether to negotiate or unilateralism. I believe that at this moment in our relationship with the Palestinians, someone would have to make a very, very powerful argument to talk Israel back into negotiations with the Palestinians, because the prospects for making progress from the Israeli perspective through unilateralism or off-the-table options are much higher. I believe a lot of good can also be done or can also happen to the Palestinians, but I’m not here to judge the Palestinian position in any way or form. From the Israeli perspective, at this point off-the-table options have a much higher potential.

Steve Solarz: Thank you very much for that dose of realism. Our next speaker will be Rob Malley. Rob is the director of the Middle East Program for the International Crisis Group. Before that he served on the NSC under President Clinton, where he played a very important role in the Camp David negotiations.


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Third Panelist

Robert Malley

Director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group

I’d like to make a few brief observations -- a lot has been said already about unilateralism – a few stark observations that I’m entirely sure that I myself are comfortable with, nor am I sure I’ll agree with them tomorrow, but I think it’s an index of the confusion we’re in today, the transitional period we’re in, the fact that the paradigms are shifting beneath our feet – I think that was already covered in the last panel. But I think it’s eminently true. We are in a period that is not named right now. It’s not Oslo. It’s not the intifada. It’s something else.

First observation. It’s unilateralism today that’s revolutionary and it’s bilateralism that’s conservative. Movement comes from the former, status quo from the latter. It’s not an expression of preference. It’s an expression of reality.

Think about it this way. If the Gaza withdrawal had been negotiated between Sharon and Abu Mazen two years ago, we’d still be negotiating it today. If you need any evidence, it’s the fact that the status of Rafah is still being negotiated now. Prime Minister Sharon would have brought to the table a number of other issues having to do with the disarmament of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas would have brought on the table a number of other demands – extraneous demands but still crucial to Palestinians – having to do with the separation barrier, having to do with settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and on and on and on.

Even if an agreement had been reached, it would have been much harder for either side to sell it to their own constituencies. Prime Minister Sharon would have had to say, I’m doing this because we got security commitments from the Palestinians, which no Israeli would have believed would be respected. Mahmoud Abbas would have said, I’m doing this because we got commitments from the Israelis on future political moves, which nobody would have believed would be respected either. As soon as one of the two sides didn’t live up to its commitments, critics in Israel or on the Palestinian side would have been quick to try to denounce the move.

When you do something unilaterally that doesn’t depend on what the other side is doing, you have much more leeway to move forward. It’s much easier to defend what you’re doing in terms of your own interests not in terms of what the other side may or may not do.

Second observation is that the time for an endgame negotiation is not now. I think we’ve already heard now both in the last panel – Aaron Miller made the point – we just heard Gidi make it now – it is very difficult to imagine the two sides sitting down and reaching a final status agreement. Again, Gidi gave some reasons having to do with the Palestinian perspective. There’s no Palestinian at this table but I’m sure he or she would beg to differ in terms of why a final status agreement is difficult to reach. I think it’s a mixture of both what Gidi said but also the fact, as we know, that right now at least the Israeli prime minister is not somebody who believes in a final status agreement, never has. Therefore even if there were a realistic ceiling to Palestinian demands, I doubt very much that any Palestinian will be able to sit down and reach an agreement with a prime minister who’s looking for a long-term interim agreement or long-term interim status, and a Palestinian who would be looking for a final status agreement.

It also may be harder today – and this is a paradoxical thought – to reach a final status agreement precisely because we say we came so close, at least in theory, to achieving it in 2000. The gaps now are so clear – it’s small but it’s so clear what would need to be done that the opponents on both sides can zero in on them. That last few meters, miles, whatever it is, is going to be much harder to cross.

That brings me to my third observation. Today unilateralism is the only process that’s going to get us anywhere but it’s also not going to get us anywhere good and anywhere stable. In the best of circumstances I could imagine a scenario whereby Israel continues to take a next series of steps to unilaterally disengage from parts of the West Bank. There’s some scenarios out there, some people close to Sharon who have suggested that. The Palestinians will be in no position to refuse it. They may not like it if it’s done unilaterally but as we saw in Gaza, how could they say no to the transfer of more land?

Mahmoud Abbas could do some steps unilaterally as this happens --again, justified in terms of Palestinian self-interest. Reestablishing law and order, trying to establish a monopoly if not on the possession of weapons at least on their use, trying to build some institutions of a state.

Again, because this would not be negotiated, it might be easier for both sides to do it.

But that’s just part of the picture. There’s what won’t happen and there’s what will happen.

What won’t happen obviously is some of the steps the Palestinians would demand in terms of greater disengagement and some of the steps that the Israelis would demand in terms of greater security steps to curb Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others.

And there’s what will happen while this takes place. We know that there will be continued settlement construction, if only because to justify what he’s doing Sharon or whoever the prime minister is would have to continue to build in East Jerusalem, to build the separation barrier, to build in the West Bank. So the good things would come with the bad and the bad things would pollute and probably make it very difficult for the good things to be swallowed.

Then there’s a fact that when this phase of what I might call mutually beneficial unilateral steps – on the Israeli side, getting out of more territory; on the Palestinian side, trying to curb the violence and lawlessness – once that comes to an end, you still have a lot to do. What is the landscape that both sides are going to find at that stage? This is where I want to go into what’s happening now, which is much more than simply unilateral disengagement. There’s a whole series of steps that are taking place right now that form part of this landscape that at the beginning I said is very hard to describe because it doesn’t have a name yet.

There is unilateralism. There is disengagement. As Gidi said, the fact that Israelis don’t want to control Palestinian populations – and that’s a very important part. There’s entrenchment of Israeli control on settlements abutting the line of 1967, on East Jerusalem. There’s construction of the separation barrier. There’s greater lawlessness on the Palestinian side, there’s fragmentation within the West Bank, the separation between Gaza and the West Bank. There’s lawlessness in terms of the rise of families and clans and other groups in Gaza but also in the West Bank. When I say there’s separation between Gaza and the West Bank, there’s also a new regional component, Gaza looking more to Egypt and the West Bank looking more to Jordan – economic ties, security ties. This is all part of the new landscape. There’s greater international disinterest in this conflict because either they don’t think it’s solvable or they simply have other things to deal with.

All of this is what we’re going to find at the end of the unilateral tunnel. It’s unclear to me how you can do something positive out of that.

Which leaves us with a final question: is there an alternative? Is there an alternative to these – whether we want to call it coordinated or mutually beneficial unilateralisms? In theory there is, and I wish that today when I woke up I’d been in the mood to give you that alternative rather than give you the unilateral version.

It goes something like this. The US Administration decides to engage. It went from disengagement in the first period of the Bush Administration to selective engagement in the second part, when it decided to focus on institution-building and ending violence on the Palestinian side, but to the exclusion of the political issues. Suppose it decides to engage, really engage and try to put an end or at least put pressure on Israel to stop some of the prejudicial steps it is taking, trying – as Aaron said – to put on the table the parameters of a final status settlement that could embolden Palestinian moderates to take the steps they need to take against their more militant groups, to rekindle hope on both sides in terms of their peace camps.

What would it take on the Palestinian side? It would take the reconstruction of a Palestinian national movement that would eschew violence and that would have a real program, a real strategy for how to engage Israel and the world; a real political program of what kind of two-state solution it has in mind.

It would take on the Israeli side the coming to power of a government that is committed to a two-state settlement, a negotiated comprehensive final-status agreement.

I think just laying that out gives you a sense of why it is much easier today to think of the unilateral paradigm than to think of an alternative, however wishful, however preferable it might be. That’s why today I chose to give you the more realistic dose rather than the more ideal one. Thank you.

Steve Solarz: Thank you very much, Rob, and the other panelists as well.


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Attributions: Jennifer Mitchell, who is currently studying at Kings College in London transcribed this document. Laurie Kassman and Michael Jackson edited it.

Question & Answer:

Steve Solarz: I’d like to take the prerogative of the chair to make a brief observation and then ask the panel a question based on it.

Given American support for Israel, which is entrenched in the American political system, and the resentment that support generates among the Palestinians and the Arab countries as a whole, as well as the larger Muslim community throughout the world, it seems to me very clear that few things would make a more positive contribution from an American perspective to achieving progress in the war on terrorism than a satisfactory resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly if the United States were to play a role in making that possible.

My impression is that at the present time the Palestinians would like to resume bilateral negotiations with Israel, however skeptical they may be about the extent to which that could produce an agreement, while the Israelis are taking the position that unless and until the Palestinian Authority cracks down on the infrastructure of terrorism, it’s not prepared to enter into such negotiations. I must say that in my view, one of the great lessons of the decade after Oslo was that it’s impossible to achieve lasting agreements between Israel and the Palestinians while terrorist attacks are taking place on a frequent basis in Israel.

So my question to the three of you is this. What would Israel have to do and what would the United States have to do and how would this have to be sequenced in order to induce Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on terrorist elements among the Palestinians? Not simply by trying to politically co-opt them into the process and as a result somehow or other induce or persuade them to forbear acts of terrorism, but actually to dismantle these organizations, which is what Israel is asking for. Is there anything that Israel and the United States could do that would embolden Mr. Abbas to take those steps? Because it seems to me if he did take them, then it would be very difficult if not impossible from a political perspective for Israel to reject an American invitation or an invitation from the Quartet to resume negotiations leading toward a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Daniel Kurtzer: I don’t really accept the question, Steve, because I don’t think that either side needs to take a prior step in order to induce the other to perform obligations that are important to the process. What’s interesting about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian engagement, particularly in the last 15-20 years, has been the clear definition by each side of what it wants from the other as the most salient, immediate step that needs to be taken. Palestinians want to see an end of settlement activity. Israelis want to see an end of terrorism. It has been defined, it has been proven. We thought we had it in Oslo, we thought we had it in the Roadmap. Neither side has carried out obligations or performed commitments that they’ve undertaken.

So rather than think about it as sequential, having one side stop doing what’s bothering the other side in order to induce change, it goes back to a more fundamental question, which is why don’t both sides simply do what they’ve undertaken to do over time? Palestinian society has an obligation to itself and then to Israel to crack down on terrorism. Israel has an obligation to itself as well as to Palestinian society to stop building settlements.

Gideon Grinstein: I think beyond the conversation about incentives, one should ask oneself whether if he hadn’t done it until now, when he was at least initially in a very good place in terms of his internal legitimacy, when Abu Mazen came into power, if he will ever do it, and if this is realistic, because Abu Mazen has been elusive about engaging the terrorist groups. To the extent that I can judge with my limited knowledge of Palestinian history, I don’t think there is a history and a culture there of reining in radicals and enforcing the will of the central organizing or governing bodies of the Palestinian national movement.

So if I were Israel, I would be very careful to base a policy upon the assumption that at some point Abu Mazen will engage those terrorists. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need to put forward a demand but I would be very careful to assume this as a foundation for any policy that serves the interest of Israel.

Very cautiously I would also say that if I were the American government, I would be very cautious about basing my diplomacy in the region on Abu Mazen confronting terrorism. At least until now we haven’t seen any of these things happening. At least to me, anything to the contrary would be a big surprise.

Robert Malley: I want to try to take a step back. Gidi earlier said, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister. Again, there’s no Palestinian here, but I do want to sort of try to put into this a sense of why on the Palestinian side we have not seen what we want to see and what should happen.

The Palestinian situation is a hybrid and it’s really an anomaly in terms of world history. It’s a state at some level, it’s a Palestinian Authority at some level – but it’s under occupation. In other words, it’s still a national liberation movement. I don’t think, and on this I agree with the conclusion Gidi reaches, I don’t think you can expect the Palestinians so long as occupation continues to make that choice – are they going to be a state but under occupation, or are they going to be a national liberation movement and forsake the state? They accepted with Oslo a very ambiguous, ambivalent, uncomfortable situation between those two. They’ll be both state and national liberation movement. Nobody personified that more in character and even in the way he dressed than Yasir Arafat. I think that’s something we have to understand. It doesn’t mean that we have to necessarily be happy with it but it’s the reality and it’s the reality that was born of the compromise that was made at Oslo.

Which brings me to the second point, more in answer to what you said. Abbas will not – I believe this as much as Gidi just expressed it – he’s not going to crack down on Hamas in the sense that he’s going to get rid of their weapons and try to bring them in line, because that would be agreeing basically that the Palestinians are now sort of on equal par with Israel and the people are not under occupation and that they are not subject to outside aggression. Abbas dislikes violence as much as anyone here but he is not prepared to take that step.

What he is prepared to do and what his gamble was – and whether it’s going to succeed or not is very much in doubt – is to try to convince these groups to abide by a ceasefire through some guarantees to them of political integration and some steps he would take and Israel would take, and gradually bring it to the point where it would become more and more costly for them politically to act with the weapons that he will let them possess. That’s a gamble.

So the notion in the Roadmap and elsewhere that someday a Palestinian leader is going to wake up and say, We are no longer going to allow weapons – the weapons that, people who still believe this is a national liberation movement insist on keeping – I think that’s not going to happen. It won’t happen until the day that you have a two-state settlement that resolves and cuts into that contradiction between a state in being and national liberation movement that still exists.

Question: The first question is to Ambassador Kurtzer. Do you believe Ariel Sharon would ever negotiate successfully with Abu Mazen?

Daniel Kurtzer: Sure. I think the answer is yes. I think any Israeli prime minister who would refuse to negotiate on the basis of fair parameters wouldn’t be prime minister of the state. What Sharon has demanded since coming into office is cessation of terrorism and action against terrorist infrastructure. You heard Rob Malley’s pessimism that that’s going to take place on the part of the PA. You’ve heard Gidi Grinstein’s pessimism that that’s going to take place on the part of the PA. You’re left with the conclusion that yes, Sharon probably would negotiate, but the conditions would not be there for him to enter into negotiations.

In fact, what drove Sharon to the Herzilya speech two years ago was the conviction that the accession to power at that time of Abu Ala signaled Palestinian unwillingness to come back to the table. It was not that Sharon woke up one morning and said, I think I’m going to withdraw from Gaza. It was rather his perception that the Palestinians had taken a turn against the possibility of negotiations that prompted him to think of alternative pathways.

Question: The next question is for Rob Malley. Are you suggesting a Camp David III is necessary to prevent Intifada III?

Robert Malley: Some people would argue that Camp David II contributed to Intifada II. I’m not among them. I’m not sure what that question means.

I do think, as I said, that there are right now two paths ahead, one of which is the one I think we’re going to be pursuing, that will be pursued, which is the weight of events on the ground moving towards what I would call a de facto reality in which there will be a Palestinian entity and maybe a state with provisional borders. As I said, it will be very different from what people had in mind. There may be violence, there may be instability, but it certainly is not a stable solution, whatever it is.

I didn’t call for a Camp David III. I did say that the other outcome would require much greater US engagement, much greater Palestinian strategic thinking and a different conception at the helm in Israel. I’m not sure that means a Camp David III.

Question: I have two questions, which are more or less alike for Gidi Grinstein. Can Abu Mazen undertake an Altalina against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad before the occupation ends? Secondly, how do you expect the PA to restrain the militants without a well-armed security apparatus?

Gideon Grinstein: For those of you who don’t know what Altalina is, Altalina was a ship that was brought by the Irgun, which was a right-wing organization underground in the first days of the establishment of Israel, and Ben-Gurion heading the national institutions, as we call them, decided to enforce the will of the national government, basically force the right-wing movement to hand over all the arms to the then recently established IDF.

So if the question is can Abu Mazen do that before occupation ends, this is a question of will and a question of capacity. It’s all in shades of gray. I think no one doubts there is a little bit of a will problem or challenge on the Palestinian side and there is an element of capacity challenge on the Palestinian side. But the combination – it’s somewhere in the gray and there is a big debate in Israel whether it’s a will issue or a capacity issue, and whether after occupation ends he will have a greater legitimacy to confront them.

But I would say that if you look at the Hizbullah challenge in Lebanon, a precedent in Lebanon, what you see is an armed faction that continues the struggle even if there is a very small, almost marginally small, remaining outstanding issue. There’s always this escape route to this confrontation. It is an issue that Israel stands on the receiving end of terrorism. But at the end of the day it’s an internal Palestinian issue. At some point, at least in the foreseeable future, there will be some kind of an outstanding issue – on refugees, on Jerusalem, on water rights. There is always a reason not to take this action.

So can Abu Mazen take an Altalina before occupation – I don’t know enough about his will or his capacity, but I seriously doubt he has the will. In terms of how he can do it – what was the second question?

Question: How can he do it without a well-armed security apparatus?

Gideon Grinstein: This is actually something I believe is rapidly transforming in our relations with the Palestinians. I believe the notion of a demilitarized Palestinian state is collapsing very quickly. Because it is collapsing, Israel’s insistence on not providing assistance to the police and the armed forces of the Palestinian Authority may be a little bit irrelevant at this point.

Question: The next question is for Ambassador Kurtzer. How could politically one side – the Palestinians for example – coordinate with an action on the other side – Israel – when the Palestinians might not agree with the unilateral action Israel is taking?

Daniel Kurtzer: What I’m trying to drive at in the idea of coordinated unilateralism is that you have a set of activities whose benefits are apparent to both sides but they can’t, for a variety of reasons I articulated, reach agreement on the full range of issues that you’d normally associate with a bilateral negotiation. Therefore – let me give you some examples. In the course of the disengagement, there were issues related to movement of people and goods, the viability of the customs union, security issues. All of these were left until very late in the game. Some of the problems that occurred at the end of the disengagement process could have been reduced significantly had there been much earlier discussions.

I don’t think, and I think the questioner is correct, I don’t think there can be coordination of core issues. For example, if the Israeli government decides that it will do a second territorial disengagement from X number of settlements, I don’t think any Israeli government would put that on the table for Palestinians to argue for more. Rather, once Israel has made a core decision on an essential element of a second disengagement, much earlier resort to coordination would solve problems rather dramatically and prevent some of the problems we had.

Similarly, Palestinians have issues, which they can put on the table much earlier with respect to some of their political and economic needs. For example, the Palestinians did not make a cogent enough argument early in the process when Israel announced right at the beginning that by 2008 there would be a cutoff of Palestinian labor. In fact, it was the US government that argued with the Israeli government not to include that issue in the legislation on disengagement in order not to foreclose an option of maintaining labor flows between the Territories and Israel. Palestinians need a much more proactive stance toward these issues because they are affecting Palestinian vital interests. So therefore, an earlier articulation of Palestinian views and coordination of those views with Israel would result in a better ending.

Question: A question for Gidi Grinstein. Why do you fear that there would be international demands regarding areas within Israel if Israel withdrew from the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Or were you talking about Palestinian demands?

Gideon Grinstein: No, international demands. I believe that there are groups that fundamentally reject the right of Jews for self-determination. They didn’t accept Israel’s existence. They always seek a leverage to deploy their political force. There’s always this outstanding issue that these groups converge on. Following a permanent status agreement, even in the case of finality of claims, the fundamental definition of Israel as a Jewish state or a state in which the Jewishness is enshrined in law would be challenged. That’s what I’m saying. This is where we see the trends. We see very powerful trends in this direction, in Europe for example, and in other places, also in academic institutions. This is just, in terms of the State of Israel, a fact of life. I’m not sitting here complaining about it, I’m just saying that in terms of governments creating expectations within the Israeli public, the expectation that the world will be off our back is not a realistic one. We just need to be able to cope with it. We need to be smart about it in the way we handle our internal policy and our foreign policy, proactively as well as in terms of the way we react. That’s the point that I was trying to make.

Steve Solarz: Would you say that the international community or significant elements within it have made additional demands on Israel after its withdrawal from Lebanon? My impression is that the United Nations passed a resolution saying that Israel had completely withdrawn. The Syrians or the Lebanese or elements, I guess, Hizbullah, was complaining you didn’t leave from Shebaa Farms. But my impression is that that demand, that complaint, has not elicited much resonance in the international community, which basically endorsed the Israeli view that you had fulfilled your obligations to Lebanon when you withdrew.

Gideon Grinstein: I’m talking about other issues, in which for example you may find Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan falling on the same side of the equation. For example, who will the Palestinian government represent? The residents of the Palestinian state or also Palestinians outside of the Palestinian state in Israel and in Jordan? Number one. Number two, whose right of self-determination will be realized by this coming into being of a Palestinian state – all Palestinians or just Palestinians in a Palestinian state? I believe down the road, these are the open issues. There is a significant constituency that has very strong cultural and historical and political affiliations in Israel towards the Palestinian people, Israeli Palestinians. There are groups on the Palestinian side that will be supported by other groups outside of the region that will continue the struggle forward.

I want to zoom out and say the following. There is an ethos of struggle on the Palestinian side and there is a narrative of historical compromise. According to the narrative of historical compromise, Israeli Arabs are Israelis. But according to the ethos of the struggle, Israeli Arabs are Palestinians under occupation. There are groups in the Muslim world, in the Arab world, on the Palestinian side as well as outside of the region that do not accept Israel’s right to exist and they will take action to effectuate their policy. That will be the next issue that they will leverage. That is what I mean. These are the trends we are seeing. I can show you 20 different events in the last two years alone indicating this trend.

Steve Solarz: I don’t doubt the truth of what you say with respect to elements among the Palestinian people. But I have the impression you were saying that these additional demands would be forthcoming not just from the Palestinians but also from significant elements outside of the Palestinian community.

Gideon Grinstein: I could point you – I don’t think this is the sphere – I could point you to decisions by the European Union that actually begin to challenge the sovereignty of the government of Israel on the issue of Israeli Arabs.

Question: I’ll close with one final one, which a professor of constitutional law that I had at college would have referred to as an imaginary horrible, but since none of you currently hold office I’ll trust you won’t take refuge by saying you don’t deal with hypotheticals. Benjamin Netanyahu has said that if he is elected as the next prime minister of Israel, he will commence his term by starting settlement building in East Jerusalem. If in the event this does happen, following the rejection of another Sharon term, will Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem erode all hopes of a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, as a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital will no longer be possible?

Robert Malley: We at the International Crisis Group wrote a report called “Jerusalem: The Powder Keg.” When I said earlier that unilateralism is both the positive things that Ambassador Kurtzer spoke about but there are other things that are happening at the same time and sometimes you can’t see them as well because of the unilateral acts, and a lot of them have had to do with Jerusalem. The problem there is not only the lives of Palestinians today, it obviously is what it means to the possibility of reaching a permanent status settlement that any Palestinian could accept once those negotiations begin. So it is one of the things that has to be looked at.

I do want to say one thing about what Gidi was saying earlier, because it strikes me as an important component, if this is really how many Israelis feel. I think a very different story could be said about what’s happened over the last few years. I think Prime Minister Sharon should feel pretty good about the extraordinary progress he’s made in terms of Israel’s legitimacy on the international scene. I could also cite 20 or 30 or 40 instances at the UN, in Europe, in the Arab world about how in fact Israel’s legitimacy has been strengthened, and from a Palestinian point of view how they would say – how have they managed to go from a time when they were on the cusp of a two-state settlement where the international community was entirely with them, at least with only a few exceptions, to now having a consensus that they have to prove that they’re worthy of a state before they can get one. I think that is something that has been one of the outcomes of unilateralism. It’s one of the outcomes of Prime Minister Sharon’s premiership, which from his perspective I think has been very successful. I would not worry too much – I mean, you’re entitled to worry, but I think there’s a counter-story here about how in fact Israel’s legitimacy has been solidified over the last several years.

Daniel Kurtzer: Having argued in the course of the past hour how deleterious an effect settlements have had on the process, or on the other side that terrorism has had on the process, I want to balance it off in response to this question by saying that I don’t think we are close to reaching a tipping point at which settlement activity, even in Jerusalem, which is the most emotionally and geographically sensitive area, will forever change the dynamics of the conflict resolution process. It’s certainly a problem and I think Israel’s own challenge in trying to define a place where to put a wall and a fence in Jerusalem is illustrative of the problem which settlements in and around Jerusalem have created.

But I don’t think we’re at a point yet where we’d call it no return. Gaza is different but Sharon demonstrated that settlements put down are also settlements that can be removed. It’s less likely that that will happen in Jerusalem, but again I would be very hesitant to be part of a doomsday prediction that even more settlement activity in Jerusalem would foreclose an option of a settlement forever.

Gideon Grinstein: First of all, I want to agree with Rob. Very important strides were made from the perspective of Israel’s legitimacy, notwithstanding what I said. I also agree that what Sharon has shown is that certain settlement activity, to a certain extent, is totally reversible. He can do it.

I think what is important to watch at this point is the inversion in the positions between Israel and the Palestinians on a number of issues, primarily the policy towards Palestinian state and provisional borders. It used to be that the Palestinians consistently pushed for a Palestinian state even with provisional borders and Israel objected. Now what is happening is probably the opposite.

Therefore what you may see is a series of moves moving toward permanent status – I’m not saying a permanent status agreement, moving toward permanent status. For example, by upgrading the political status of the Palestinian Authority implicitly or explicitly, deliberately or undeliberately, and on a number of other issues. We may see progress on the issue of refugees in Gaza. We may see a total inversion of the positions on the customs stations, as was mentioned here.

All of these things, at the end of the day, bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to permanent status, not to the permanent status agreement. So by and large I think we’re seeing, as was mentioned at the beginning, good days for Israeli-Palestinian relations in terms of the progress toward permanent status.

Steve Solarz: We’ve had a bracing dose of realism from our three panelists, but I would prefer to conclude this panel by quoting words that Robert Kennedy often referred to when he quoted a poet as saying, “Some men see things as they are and ask why, other men dream things that never were and ask why not.” Thank you.

About this Transcript:

"Negotiations vs. Unilateralism" was the final panel at MEI's 59th annual Conference, which was held on November 7-9, 2005.