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Forget Negotiations

After the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, Israel should embrace mutual unilateralism.

The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is certainly bad news for peace. But this does not mean it is bad news as such. Because the most urgent need for the future survival of both Israel and Palestine is not peace. It is partition. And the reconciliation may actually be good news for the prospect of partition.

It is, by now, abundantly clear that the two sides of the conflict are unable to reach a peace accord. Those who have been deluding themselves that the Palestinian leadership is just one step away from compromise with Israel may be shocked and disappointed by the Fatah-Hamas alliance. But those who have seen Palestinians reject any and all peaceful partition deals—since 1937, through 1947, and all the way up to Camp David in 2000, the Clinton Paper, and the deal offered by Ehud Olmert two years ago—may be less shocked. The Fatah-Hamas alliance is a rude, sobering reminder that peace is probably not near.

Does this mean that the future of Israelis and Palestinians is a chronic civil war between two communities locked in a life or death struggle in a single bi-national state? Not necessarily. There are enough pragmatic minds on both sides who recognize that we can—indeed must—partition the land even without peace. Ariel Sharon, no peacenik, recognized this and moved for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. And recently, the Palestinians have also opted for a unilateral policy: declaring statehood regardless of Israel’s opinion. It seems, indeed, that we have begun an era of mutual unilateralism. And such an era could usher de facto what a peace deal aspires to declare de jure with great fanfare.

Make no mistake: There is no sudden love between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah remembers very well how Hamas crushed, tortured, and murdered its people when it took over in Gaza. The recent move is pragmatic, not enthusiastic. It is designed to facilitate international support for the unilateral declaration of independence slotted for September. And, if Israel and the U.S. see the potential in this unilateral move, not just its dangers, they may change their whole attitude not just to the Fatah-Hamas alliance, but also to the advantages of what I called mutual unilateralism.

If we finally put partition before peace as our goal, Israel and the U.S. may use the Palestinian move in September to defuse the major issues which peril the future of both Palestinians and Israelis. Rather than persuade the Palestinians to accept a deal, we could use the opportunity to condition support for Palestinian independence on international recognition of the 1967 lines—with minor land swaps—as final borders; we could demand international guarantees for Israel’s security; and we could also demand that the international community acknowledge the right of Palestinians to return to Palestine only, and renounce the misguided idea of returning them to Israel proper. What the Palestinians refuse to commit to, the international community may thus help secure. And, if it does, it will answer Israel’s most basic needs and give it most of what it could gain from a peace accord—first and foremost, final boarders that will shore up the danger of sinking into a bi-national state with an Arab majority.

Sadly, it is unlikely that either Israel or the U.S. will adopt such a policy. Israel, because the Netanyahu administration is too pessimistic and inert, and the U.S., because the Obama administration is too optimistic and naïve. Netanyahu sticks to an agenda of peace because he thinks peace is unattainable and that, in this way, he will postpone partition indefinitely. Obama sticks to an agenda of peace because he still hopes it is attainable and will promote partition immediately.

Perhaps the entrance of Hamas into the process will help sober us all about the prospects of peace. And hopefully, this will make us slightly more receptive to the idea of mutual unilateralism. It would be best for Israel’s interests if it uses September 2011 to bring the Palestinian policy into the folds of the 1947 partition logic. The Palestinians will be forced to see, as Zionism did in 1947, that national independence—for them as well as for us—is conditioned on partition. Six decades of Palestinian refusal to partition may thus finally come to an end. After that happens, we may begin to think about peace again.

Gadi Taub is a senior lecturer at the Federman School of Public Policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.