Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, recently suggested that if negotiations with the Palestinians fail, Israel should unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank. If the suggestion was a trial balloon, it deserves to be deflated. That approach was partially adopted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview on Israeli television over the past weekend. He argued for an extension of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and stated that he did not favor unilateral actions. But he concluded by stating that he didn’t rule out the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal.
So what are the details of the Oren plan? Well, there really are none.
Oren explained that his idea is to put his Plan B into action if the Palestinians launch their own post-diplomatic Plan B by appealing to the United Nations and the international community to pressure and isolate Israel through boycotts and delegitimization. Notwithstanding the sequenced timing of his proposal, however, Oren framed his plan not as a tit for tat, but as a way for Israel to take control of its future. “I’m aware there’s no perfect solution here,” he said. “Every option involves risks, untold circumstances. But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having what I refer to as the Zionist option: We do not outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making.”
That’s a nice piece of rhetoric. But everyone remembers the problems caused by Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza and the difficulties that followed from a lack of agreement with the forces taking over those territories. Oren’s calm insistence that this time Israel would protect its security interests rings hollow. Wasn’t that what Israel thought it was doing the last time around? And how would unilateral withdrawal square with Netanyahu’s pledge over the past weekend not to force settlers to evacuate settlements in the West Bank?
But maybe Oren’s suggestion is not really so much of a plan as it is a statement and warning — both to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to President Barack Obama — about Israel’s attitude if current negotiations end without an agreement.
As a warning, the Oren suggestion might make people take note. But as a plan of action, Oren’s proposal is full of holes. He spoke neither about specific borders nor about what will happen to settlers should Israel pull back behind their settlements. And the proposed move will do nothing to arrest the movement to boycott and isolate Israel. Moreover, a unilateral withdrawal could strain relations with the United States, and, most fundamentally, the move would leave Israel without a security partner on the Palestinian side; in other words, it could create another Gaza or Lebanon.
Calls for unilateral action come in times of deep frustration and reflect a feeling that there is no alternative. We understand that. But it is important to remember that there is an alternative — the one that most of Israel agrees upon: negotiations. The two-state solution is the best Zionist option. No matter how frustrating the process may be, a diplomatic agreement is the best way to tie Israeli and Palestinian security interests together and to make it in each side’s interest to preserve the peace.
The parties to the ongoing peace talks are engaged in serious work. We hope they continue their efforts to a successful conclusion. But as they go about their work, it is probably better not to distract them with balloons.