Israelis are facing a surge of recent attacks by Palestinians, including on the cities of Hadera, Beer Sheba, B’nei Berak, and Tel Aviv. As we write this, 14 innocent people have been murdered in bloody, pre-meditated attacks, and dozens wounded. At the same time, tensions and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the West Bank are on the rise, with one analyst counting 15 Palestinians killed in the West Bank in clashes with Israel Defense Force during the first two weeks of April. And on April 18, Palestinians in Gaza fired a rocket into Israel for the first time since Dec. 31, to which Israeli aircraft responded by attacking Gaza.
The three of us — a former Head of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret security service tasked with combatting terrorism; a senior peace negotiator under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak; and a former fighter pilot who leads social entrepreneurship projects involving Israeli Arabs and Jews — are familiar with Israel’s national security interests. We have never deluded ourselves that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end Palestinian and Islamist terrorism. Nevertheless, a partition of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into two nation-States and demarcating a border between them is indispensable to creating a future that will curtail and defeat that terrorism. And there is a way to move towards such a scenario.
Ten years ago, The New York Times published our op-ed Peace Without Partners, in which we called on Israel to “take constructive steps to advance the reality of two States based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps — regardless of whether Palestinian leaders have agreed to accept it.” We noted that “through a series of unilateral actions, gradual but tangible changes could begin to transform the situation on the ground.”
And we posited: “Imperfect as it is, this plan would reduce tensions and build hope among both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Our message resonated shortly afterwards in Thomas Friedman’s column, Power with Purpose, in the New York Times. Our proposed “constructive unilateralism,” wrote Friedman, consists of Israel declaring “…its willingness to return to negotiations anytime and that it has no claims of sovereignty on any West Bank lands east of its security barrier… Such an initiative,” he added, “would radically change Israel’s image in the world, dramatically increase Palestinian incentives to negotiate and create a pathway for securing Israel as a Jewish democracy.”
The Regional Context
Regrettably, this message did not get through to Israel’s political leaders then, and still has not. Just last month, at the Negev Summit, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hosted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and foreign ministers from four Arab States, but, tellingly, no Palestinian representative. Moreover, Lapid has ruled out any talks with Palestinians when he becomes prime minister (the uncertainty surrounding Israel’s governing coalition notwithstanding), echoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the government’s policy. Big mistake. It seems that the missing partner for negotiations is Israel, not less than the Palestinians.
So the time is ripe for resurfacing another approach. As a result of the increasing Israeli-Palestinian clashes, U.S. State Department officials are traveling this week to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to de-escalate tensions, reminding Washington that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a habit of pulling in U.S. administrations, whether they like it or not. Moreover, tensions in the region are escalating. It would therefore be in the interests of both the United States and Israel to explore original ideas, especially when Washington is heavily engaged in Ukraine and domestic issues.
Also, the progress towards an endgame in the Iran deal may create an impetus to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In addition, while the notion of a two-State solution based on a bilateral agreement is losing ground among Israelis, many Israelis are now realizing that securing the future of Israel as the democratic nation-State of the Jewish People requires creating a reality of two States, based on disengagement from the Palestinians.
Furthermore, though in no way analogous, Russia’s aggressive military campaign in Ukraine should teach Israel a lesson: in asymmetric conflicts, the weaker party has the upper hand as long as it is not defeated, while the stronger party loses if it does not unequivocally win. Despite the immense destruction of Ukraine cities, thousands of Ukrainians killed, and millions of displaced refugees, the free world’s public opinion is that, to date, Ukraine has not lost. Similarly, in the case of Israel, unquestionably winning the military battle against Palestinian terror and violence will not be considered a victory nor an advancement towards a political settlement.
The Components of `Constructive Unilateralism’
The approach we are suggesting has two components, based on two commitments: First, Israel should declare that it adheres to the vision encapsulated in its 1948 Declaration of Independence, which inevitably requires a border within which its fundamental values will govern; second, in the absence of meaningful negotiations towards such a vision, Israel should take independent steps to create a reality of two States. Such a reality can later lead to a bilateral or multilateral agreement.
Despite the many years of off-and-on talks in the past, Israel actually attempted to resolve the 100-year Israeli-Palestinian dispute through a negotiated permanent agreement only twice since the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords: in 1999-2001, under Barak, and in 2007-2008 under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The core contentious issues — Jerusalem and the Holy Sites; territory, borders, and settlements; security arrangements; and refugees – remain, despite the significant Israeli-Arab normalization that culminated in the 2020 Abraham Accords and was reinforced at last months’ Negev Summit.
This meager attempt and the absence of partners are what led the three of us to suggest in 2012 that Israel take independent steps to disengage from the Palestinians. Unfortunately, consecutive Israeli governments instead used euphemistic language to sanctify the status quo, hoping that conflict management would suffice. It did not and it will not. But it will lead to more waves of violence.
Ten years later, it is not too late. Israel should declare adherence to a vision of two States, based on the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, with some revisions and regional security arrangements, and other blueprints. This vision is based on the following principles: delineating borders based on the 1967 lines, with equitable land-swaps based on security considerations, and allowing some settlements to remain under Israeli sovereignty; addressing Israel’s security concerns with adequate arrangements such as a demilitarized Palestinian State; making the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem the capital of the Palestinian State; reaching an arrangement on Jerusalem’s Old City’s holy sites to allow freedom of access and worship; and compensating the refugees while resettling them primarily in the Palestinian State or in third countries.
Then Israel could begin a gradual regional process to turn that vision into reality, through reducing its presence and towards ending of the occupation, as suggested above. As the Abraham Accords and subsequent meetings involving Israeli and Arab leaders demonstrate, Islamists do not shy away from diplomacy or realpolitik.
Security With Self-Determination
Delineating a border to disengage Israelis and Palestinians from each other is the only way to secure a Jewish-democratic Israel, consistent with the Zionist vision, as well as political self-determination for the Palestinians. It is still attainable — albeit, gradually. And the way to achieve that remains the constructive unilateralism approach we proposed – a series of transitional and interim phases, and independent steps, alongside continuous negotiations. Zionism never aspired to effectively rule others, let alone for over half a century.
An important such step would be an independent Israeli declaration that it has no long-term sovereignty claims in the areas outside of the settlement blocs. This will signal Israel’s eventual acceptance of the future existence of a Palestinian State. It will thus send a strong message to the international community, to the Palestinians, and also to the settlers who reside outside of the blocs that Israel will not be hostage of the extremists on both sides, and that it takes proactive steps to fulfill the vision of a Jewish and democratic State through gradual ending of the conflict, and as a deriving outcome, the 55-year occupation.
The Biden administration should support “constructive unilateralism,” in which Israel takes the first steps. This approach is also in America’s interest and is in lockstep with the administration’s policy, enunciated most recently by Blinken at the end of March: “Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve to live with equal measures of freedom, of opportunity, security, of dignity, and we believe that the most effective way, ultimately, to give expression to that basic principle is through two States.” But he added, “Of course, the two sides are very far apart, so we’ll continue our work, step by step, to try to bring them closer.”
The Middle East faces extraordinary challenges and opportunities in myriad areas: security, energy, food, climate, to name but a few. It is time to get our act together and join forces to peacefully promote a significant change in the region and advance the prosperity and welfare of its peoples. Countering an expansionist Iran possessing military nuclear weaponry and using terror proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah would be much more difficult and constraining if Israelis do not engage in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and disengage from the Palestinians. For Israel, overlooking this challenge and tabling it is unmistakably a disastrous choice. It provides no security and offers no hope, while it undermines the country’s long-term national interests.