Point Unilateral Action Won’t Work
by Naomi Scheinerman
Counterpoint Negotiating With Your Oppressor
by Bilal Baydoun
Unilateral action by Palestinians or Israelis will never yield peace; achieving peace in this complex situation requires negotiations in which both sides are willing to make concessions.
Because I cannot encompass the very wide spectrum of opinions on this topic, I intend the views conveyed in this piece to represent no one but myself. Please resist the urge to categorize this article as an ideological manifesto that is “Pro-This” or “Anti-That”. I hope to shed light on my perspective, which is informed by my experiences of living in both Israel and the West Bank; studying, reading, listening, and observing, often from family and friends intimately involved in the conflict; and a passionate connection to Israel as the Jewish Homeland.
The recent Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations is an inappropriate course of action for two major reasons: (1) The UN is incapable of serving as an appropriate or objective arbitrator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and (2) this conflict will not be resolved by unilateral action by either party.
First, the United Nations record on matters relating to Israel and the Palestinian and Arab conflict has consistently been biased against Israel. The UN Human Rights Council has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than all other states combined, which indicates a blatant double standard. It is one thing to pass warranted and accurate resolutions about Israel’s human rights situation and another to focus inordinately on Israel when concern for human rights should guide us to look to the more serious concerns in Sudan, India, China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and many other places. This clear and disproportionate bias renders the UN an entirely inappropriate arbitrator of the question of Palestinian statehood.
Second, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s attempt to acquire statehood status at the UN constitutes a unilateral demand for territory without a corresponding offer of peace. As established at the Camp David Accords in 1978, the basis of the Middle East peace process has been Israeli offers of land for Arab promises of peace, but Abbas’s UN bid entails no such promise. Unilateral action without promises of peace does not work. When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and gave over governance to the Palestinians, the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas violently took over in 2006, murdering and imprisoning hundreds of members of the Palestinian political party Fatah and proceeding to launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilian populations around the Gaza Strip (a danger that continues today).
It is misleading to boil down the great complexity of the situation in the Middle East to that of Palestinian sovereignty. Though in 1947 the UN partitioned the land into a sovereign Palestine and a sovereign Israel, there never really was a sovereign state of Palestine to occupy. The Arab states, rejecting the partition, waged war against Israel, resulting in the Jordanian seizure of the West Bank and Egyptian control of Gaza (both of which Israel retook in the defensive 1967 war)—neither being an instance of a sovereign Palestinian state. Furthermore, Palestinians have been given sovereignty both in Gaza (2005) and, since the signing of the Oslo Accords (1993), increasingly in the West Bank as well. However, failure on both sides to adequately comply with the provisions of the accords led to a Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada (2000-2004), which saw hundreds of tragic Israeli and Palestinian deaths.
This is why this situation is far more nuanced and complex than a power dynamic of occupier vs. occupied or oppressor vs. oppressed. Granted, the Israeli army is more powerful and advanced than Hamas. As a result of security threats, Israel constructed a security fence around the West Bank. Though often criticized as an Israeli land grab and as an instrument to divide and degrade Palestinians, the presence of the barrier and Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints has resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of suicide bombers and terror threats on Israeli soil.
In addition, there are too many issues on the table that need sorting out, such as the location of Palestine (which neighborhoods and Jewish settlements it would include), the citizenship status of the Jews living in the West Bank, how to connect the West Bank and Gaza, the location of Palestine’s capital (East Jerusalem includes the Old City and hence one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the Western Wall), and also Jewish access to Jewish holy sites in the West Bank. Negotiation is the only way to sort out these thorny issues.
Peace negotiations are dynamic and fluid and change with the political circumstances (such as the return of Gilad Shalit to his home after over five years in captivity) and with those in power. In the world of global politics and diplomacy, it is illogical to conclude that because the negotiations have not worked in the past, they will not succeed in the future. I dream of a day when there is no security fence, no checkpoints, and no Israeli military presence in the West Bank or Gaza. I yearn for a day when the sovereign state of Palestine and the secure and Jewish state of Israel can shake hands, collaborate on environmental problems, and discuss education initiatives. That dream can only be attained through negotiations over the details, concessions on both sides, and a clear and explicit declaration of and adherence to peace.
The peace process is a farce biased heavily in Israel’s favor. Only unilateral action from a democratic Palestine will allow Palestinians to counter Israeli imperialism and achieve statehood and peace.
If it didn’t have such tragic implications for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper, the so-called “Peace Process” would be one of the great jokes of modern history. The question of the appropriateness of unilateral action, therefore, must begin with an assessment of this tired alternative, a process by which the U.S., the world’s leading imperial power, rejectionist state, and underwriter of Israeli crimes, attempts to mediate a settlement between an occupying power, Israel, and those who are occupied, the Palestinians. Despite all the events, changes in leadership, and ideological shifts within these three parties over the last 44 years, this basic blueprint hasn’t changed, and, unsurprisingly, it has produced a lot of process and no peace.
Consider this carefully: ever since Israelis and Palestinians began negotiations for a two-state settlement, the Israeli camp has offered precisely and exactly zero concessions. All concessions have come from the Palestinians, who have seen their territory shrink rapidly since 1948. Many Israeli apologists, however, unable to recognize the deep sense of lawlessness and exceptionalism that has so rampantly infected Israeli political culture, often point to a long list of “painful concessions” made by Israel: the 2005 “withdrawal” from Gaza is a popular one; so, too, is Netanyahu’s ten-month “freeze” on illegal settlement building. In both cases, Israel did not offer a concession, but rather decided to temporarily obey the law (though the Gaza example is a bad one, since there was no complete withdrawal, but instead a redeployment of the Israeli Occupation Forces on the periphery of Gaza). Indeed, issuing a temporary freeze on illegal settlement building is much like telling the highway patrolman: “I’ll stop speeding for 90 days, but after that, I’m going drag racing in a school zone.”
Furthermore, Israel-Palestine, when viewed from a global perspective, is perhaps the least controversial and easiest “conflict” to solve; there already exists an overwhelming consensus on how to reach a two-state settlement. This year, the U.N. resolution calling for “peaceful Settlement of the question of Palestine,” which essentially reiterates the universally accepted realities of this issue—that the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, in their entirety, are “occupied Palestinian territory,” that the settlements are illegal, that the wall is illegal, that the blockade on Gaza has caused a monumental humanitarian crisis, etc.—received 165 “yes” votes and 7 “no” votes. That is, over 95 percent of voting states agree that Palestinians should have a state in this form; the dissenters are the usual rejectionists – Israel, the U.S., Australia, and a few Pacific Island nations. That a solution hasn’t been reached with such incredible unanimity is proof enough of the crippling effects of U.S.-Israeli intransigence.
Meanwhile, proponents of the Peace Process insist that unilateral action in Israel-Palestine affairs can only hinder the prospects for peace. The truth is that the Israeli camp has only practiced unilateralism. After all, did the Palestinians bilaterally agree to have their homes demolished, their land illegally colonized, their resources stolen,  and their families beaten and harassed on a daily basis? Certainly they didn’t have a say in Israel’s construction of an illegal annexation wall that separates farmers from their fields, students from their classrooms, and the sick from medical care. Indeed, there is only one type of bilateralism that the Israeli government has communicated: agree to let us do whatever we want.
I support the most recent unilateral statehood bid by the Palestinian Authority in principle because it represents a break from the farcical American Peace Process. The bid gives the nations of the world a chance to stand against Israeli occupation, which hopefully can pressure and isolate Israel in the same way that Apartheid South Africa was in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In the end, however, this bid can’t have a real impact on the situation in Palestine, and I have plenty of reservations about it. Most notably, I believe there is a dangerous precedent in Mahmoud Abbas—who hasn’t been elected and represents no one—speaking on behalf of the Palestinians. A democratically elected leader must represent Palestine. The last time there were elections in Palestine, however, the U.S. and Israel punished the Palestinians for voting the wrong way in a free election. Thus U.S.-Israeli suppression of democracy must end as well, which includes unwavering support for Arab dictatorships like the Saudi and Jordanian kingdoms. Seeing that Israel isn’t likely to accede to such change voluntarily, it’s important for supporters of peace to practice targeted boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and abandons its expansionist ambitions. If Israel truly wants peace and is serious about protecting its security, it should do one thing: end the occupation now. But as history has shown us, the Israeli government will ultimately choose expansion over peace—and then tell the world it wants to dialogue over whatever land it hasn’t already usurped.
The Israel-Palestine issue is not a conflict between two peoples who just don’t know how to share and get along. It is a struggle between poor and privileged, colonized and colonizer, occupied and occupier, victim and aggressor. Until this power structure changes, or a genuinely neutral party mediates the talks, the struggle will continue.
About the Issue
Point author: Naomi Scheinerman is an LSA senior majoring in Political Science and Philosophy and is Israel Chair at Hillel and a former board member and treasurer of the American movement for Israel. She blogs for Consider and is an associate editor for the Journal of Political Science.
Counterpoint author: Bilal Baydoun is a senior at the University of Michigan, the co-chair of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), and a lifelong advocate of freedom and equality for all disenfranchised people of the world.
Edited by: Aaron Bekemeyer and Rachel Blumstein
Cover by: Rebekah Malover