On December 18, 2001, the Carnegie Endowment convened a Middle East briefing with Visiting Scholar Shlomo Avineri called "When Negotiations Fail: Alternative Approaches to Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking." Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Endowment, chaired the briefing.

Carothers introduced the discussion by noting how the current period of intense violence in the region has resulted in a serious unraveling of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Recent turbulence has called into question basic suppositions that founded negotiation of Camp David II in 2000, Oslo in 1993, and even those of the peace conference in Madrid in 1991, including the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Carothers asked Middle East expert Avineri to reflect on the possibility for peace and the role of the United States, given "the unfortunate free fall" of the region.

As a background for his proposal for Israel's unilateral disengagement, Avineri began his remarks by illustrating how recent developments suggest the near impossibility of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Two defining moments have lead Avineri to this conclusion: first, the Oslo agreement that raised high hopes for peace and then the failure of Camp David II that shattered them.

In 1993, Oslo offered as subtext a two-state solution, receiving nearly 73 percent approval in the Israeli population, though it did not settle the looming questions of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, nor settlements. In a spirit of compromise during the summer of 2000 at Camp David II, Ehud Barak, the first Israeli Prime Minister to accept publicly the legitimacy of a Palestinian state, expressed a willingness to withdraw from most of the West Bank and trade even some territory within Israel proper for West Bank territory. Further, Barak conveyed a readiness to dismantle 20 to 30 Jewish settlements, evacuate 20 to 30 thousand settlers, re-divide Jerusalem and share sovereignty over the Temple Mount. If an agreement had been achieved, Avineri believes that Barak would have received majority support from Israel.

Avineri suggested that Arafat made a strategic mistake in rejecting Barak's offer without making a counteroffer and raising "the principle of the right of return of 1948 refugees." Avineri likened this action to a hypothetical West German chancellor, during German reunification negotiations in 1990, demanding that Poles and Czechs accept in principle the right of return of 15 million Germans expelled after 1945. "If a German chancellor would have said anything like this, we would have called him neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist, expansionist, imperialistic. That's exactly the way Arafat's principle of return of '48 refugees was viewed in Israel," said Avineri, noting that Arafat's actions alienated the political center and left of the Israeli public.

Ultimately, Avineri believes that the failure to achieve peace at Camp David has lead most Israelis to conclude that Palestinian leadership, as presently constituted, is not yet ready for the historical compromises necessary to accept Israel as a Jewish state in the middle of the Arab world. Avineri explained that it is unrealistic to expect the Israeli government-particularly under the leadership of Sharon-to make a more generous offer than that of Camp David or to expect Arafat to sign an agreement less generous than that which he rejected just over one year ago. The rigid belief that a near term solution exists and that individuals like United States Special Envoy to the Middle East Anthony Zinni can sort out a long history of anger, frustration and hatred betrays a sort of arrogant thinking sometimes prevalent in the West. 

According to Avineri, the Zinni peace mission illustrates the futility of continued negotiations in the current climate. The Bush administration sent Zinni to prevent possible popular unrest in the Arab world. Avineri believes that this mission has conveyed to extremists that they can use terrorism-whether directly perpetrated or not-to place pressure on Israel. "Hamas now has effective veto on any negotiations," Avineri pointed out, predicting that even if Zinni were to reach an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis next January, Hamas would continue to undermine the agreement through bombings, as long as Arafat does not "put an end to the organizations." As violence continues to erupt, the present situation leaves Israel with no choice but to move toward unilateral decisions.

Avineri argued that Israel's unilateral Israeli disengagement might provide the optimal non-solution for the region. "My ideals are so low now that I look at Cyprus as a shining city on the hill," Avineri admitted, claiming that this 30-year "non-solution" has eliminated violence from the area and prevented it from spilling over into Greek-Turkish relations. "Just as in Kosovo and Bosnia, you sometimes have to admit you do not have solutions to ethnic conflicts that go back into history and to religion," Avineri stated.

Avineri's proposal for Israeli disengagement entails dismantling some 20 to 30 Jewish settlements, evacuating 20 to 30 thousand Jewish settlers and allowing a contiguous area for Palestinians on the West Bank. Disengagement, Avineri argues, frees Israel both from occupation and from its economic responsibility for the Palestinians. "Economic cooperation is not cheap Arab labor working for Israeli businesses. This is not the new Middle East; this is the old South Africa," Avineri opined. Instead, Avineri believes that Arab nations should express their solidarity by investing in the Palestinian economy, rather than relying on Israel for Palestinian economic welfare.

Further, as part of disengagement, Avineri expressed the need for Israel to improve its border policies, just as United States has done as a result of September 11-despite the harshness of this measure on Palestinians. To this end, Avineri called for the creation of a physical barrier, similar to the one that Israel has with Lebanon or on the Golon Heights, to curb the ability of terrorists and suicide bombers to enter Israel. With the present Israeli checkpoint system, a Palestinian terrorist can move freely from Jenin to Afula using authentic or falsified identification. In fact, in the past nine months, though groups such as the Islamic Jihad and Hamas have their bases in the Gaza Strip, all suicide bombers who entered Israel came from the West Bank. The explanation for this: Gaza is physically separated from Israel, while the West Bank is not, due to the gerrymandered lines of the Jewish settlements.

Avineri claimed to raise the idea of disengagement to encourage a shift in prevailing strategic thinking. He asserted that remaining committed to a negotiated settlement, "when the parts are not there" proves counterproductive and oftentimes dangerous. Avineri admitted that several important details of the disengagement remain unresolved. Jerusalem, for example, has its own paradoxes, in that Israeli controls the city while Muslims control Temple Mount. The situation does provide a strained balance, however, with minimal violence. Avineri noted how Sharon became the last Israeli Jew to visit the Temple Mount because Muslim leaders prevent Jews from visiting the site since then. 

Avineri then discussed political leaders' reaction to the idea of unilateral disengagement. Negotiators such as Ehud Barak or Shlomo Ben-Ami, who once believed in reaching a solution, now believe in the non-solution. Other supporters of unilateral disengagement include on the left, Israeli Labor Party's Haim Ramon, one of the strongest supporters of Oslo; in the center, Dan Meridor, a former Likud member and now a minister for the Center Party; and on the far right, Likud member Michael Eytan. The greatest obstacles to unilateral disengagement come in the form of the Israeli heads of government. Sharon resists the idea because he does not want to dismantle Jewish settlements; Peres, because he still believes in Oslo. "Sooner or later, it will become clear that both of them are wrong," Avineri predicted. "There is no military solution a la Sharon and there is no pacific solution a la Oslo, if this is what Peres still believes." Avineri concluded by encouraging America to "lower its sights to achieving a minimalist cease fire" and aim for stabilization rather than resolution.

Tom Carothers, the chair of the briefing, launched the question and answer period by asking Avineri to comment further on how the United States should revise its approach to the peace process. Avineri responded by outlining the argument he made in his policy brief, "A Realistic U.S. Role in the Arab-Israeli Conflict." Adopting humility in its role, the United States should recognize that it can best address tensions in the region in two ways: by using its weight to stop an imminent war or by facilitating final negotiations after considerable concessions have been made on both sides. At present, Avineri believes that neither scenario applies to the conflict. Further, he claimed that certain September 11 motivating factors for U.S. policy, such as avoiding the threat of eruption on the Arab street or maintaining cohesion among the coalition, no longer seem as pressing in this phase of America's war on terrorism.

Another audience member asked about the role of the American Jewish community, which, in his view, places pressure on the United States government to advance Israeli interests. In response, Avineri asserted that ultimately the American Jewish community plays a minimal role in foreign policy decisions. He explained that the U.S. position towards Arafat in the last three months has resulted from the administration's own conclusion that Arafat has not taken adequate action against Hamas, like other Arab regimes including the Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians have taken with extremist Islamic groups-and not from the pressure of American Jews. 

Avineri explained that after September 11, the American Jewish community faced a crossroads: it had to decide between supporting an American war effort-requiring "a certain distancing from Israel"-and supporting Israel at a time when members of the American administration perceive it to be a bit of a "pain in the neck." He opined that the community has made the right decision in offering measured support to the elected Israeli government while ascribing a higher priority to United States interests. 

Another audience member asked for Avineri's view of negotiations in Taba, Egypt, following Camp David II, given Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin claim that the elections thwarted great progress made in Taba. Avineri firmly disagreed with Beilin's interpretation of Taba, arguing that negotiators had not come close to any agreement. If they had, an election would have presented an appropriate opportunity to test out measures with the electorate and possibly keep Barak in power, Avineri reasoned. 

The remaining questions involved the details of Avineri's unilateral disengagement proposal. One audience member raised his conception of a Palestinian perspective on disengagement, arguing that such an action would result in a "pressure cooker" rather than a "stabilization of the situation," if Israelis fence off the majority of Palestinians on the West Bank and forsake economic responsibility. Without adequate access to borders, the Arab world would not invest in the West Bank and Gaza, as per Avineri's recommendation. Further, in Gaza, 57 percent of the population-1.1 million Palestinians-are under 18 years of age and have never traveled outside of the area. The isolation they experience may lead to continued violence.

Avineri accepted that disengagement must address the external borders of Gaza and the West Bank, agreeing that with some Israeli presence, the Palestinians should control access. Regarding economic interdependence, Avineri claimed that integration between "two areas so different in GNP as Israel and the Palestinian areas" is unfeasible. He went on to explain that the lack of investment from Arab countries in the Palestinian economy in the 1990s resulted from "a deep lack of Arab solidarity when it comes to wealth sharing" and not from a lack of Palestinian control over the borders. As evidence, Avineri points to the absence of Saudi investment in Egyptian economy and Kuwait's reluctance to invest in Arafat's regime because of the latter's support of Saddam Hussein.

With respect to keeping Palestinians from the West Bank out of Israel proper, another audience member asked about the ability of Palestinians to enter through East Jerusalem. Avineri, describing the strained present stability in Jerusalem, suggested that Israel could create a barrier between East Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank, leaving 200,000 Palestinian Arabs living in East Jerusalem. He mentioned that the potential extreme consequence of terrorist action in Jerusalem has encouraged Palestinians in East Jerusalem to refrain from such activity. 

In a similar vein, another audience member raised the precarious position of Israeli citizens of Arab-Palestinian descent. He asked about the potential for the expanding Arab population to become an "irredentist formula." Avineri responded by encouraging people to understand that two states exist and that the Israeli-Arab minority that would like to remain citizens of Israel must fight for their rights with the help of the Israeli left, while minimizing the violence of the general conflict. One of the emerging subtexts of disengagement, he claimed, is "to disengage Israeli-Arabs from daily contact not with their Palestinian cousins but with Palestinian extremist nationalism." When Arab-Israeli members of the Israeli Parliament attend the funerals of Palestinian terrorists killed by Israelis or when these citizens cross from Um el Fahm, part of Israel proper, to Jenin, to take part in incendiary political discussions and return to Israel, Israeli-Arab integration does not occur. 

Another question concerned the message Israel sends to the Arab world by embarking on unilateral disengagement. Believing that the Arab world interpreted Israel's disengagement from Lebanon as a sign of weakness, the audience member feared that leaders such as Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, who might replace Arafat, could use terror as a political tool. Avineri opined that pragmatism in maintaining local power prevents Rajoub and Dahlan from jeopardizing daily security in a struggle for national liberation. To avoid having the action interpreted as a retreat, Avineri asserted that Israel must be "harsh on the Palestinians" in implementing unilateral disengagement. When withdrawing and dismantling settlements, Israel should offer, for example, 48 hours notice to the Palestinians with the threat of "blowing up" the physical plant of the settlement unless Palestinians pay a sum for every building into an escrow account in Switzerland for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees. "You have to make it harsh but in a way which is meaningful to the other side," Avineri said. 

Other questions concerned the United Nations' and European Union's reaction to Avineri's proposal. Admitting that, in general, status quo agreements such as those of Cyprus, Bosnia and Kosovo rarely acquire international legitimacy as long range policy, Avineri expects that the international community, including the United States and the European Union, will get involved more clearly if his proposal creates more violence. 

In the final question, President of the Endowment, Jessica Mathews, asked for Avineri's opinion on whether the United Nations would rethink the status of refugee camps in the region. The United Nations resolution of 1948 prohibits building permanent housing in the camps because this would mean accepting their rehabilitation in the present domicile. Given that unilateral disengagement qualifies as a "non-solution" Avineri predicted that on a symbolic level, the United Nations will not change its mandate. However, all hope for economic development is not lost as some European and Saudi firms have independently been building housing in Gaza.

About the speaker: Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science and director of the Institute for European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment. A prominent political scientist who has published widely on the Middle East conflict, he served as director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first administration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from 1975 to 1977. Read his recent policy brief, "A Realistic U.S. Role in the Arab-Israeli Conflict."

Report prepared by Pavani Reddy