Problems of unilateralism

To some shortsighted politicians, unilateralism seems very convenient. It doesn’t require the mess of actual negotiations. It is usually politically correct, because you can decide how much and how far you want to carry out a particular policy. But unilateralism can’t be a rational long-term, effective policy. US President George Bush is getting a bloody nose in Iraq and if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues on the path of unilateralism, he will have many problems.

For a while, Sharon actually convinced many people that he was interested in negotiations. It was easy to fool the world at the time because of the claim that Israel will not negotiate until there was quiet. Calls for a ceasefire were rejected as Israel, the strong party in this equation, simply said it will only talk when the Palestinians are “quiet.”

Putting the blame on Yasser Arafat was also convenient and received the support of the American president who shunned the Palestinian leader; thus, yet another opportunity for multilateralism was avoided and Israel was able to do whatever it wished.

All this was possible until this year. The Arafat excuse was buried in Ramallah. The demand for quiet has been accomplished without a ceasefire and the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has done everything expected of him, including vastly improving the security situation, refocusing the Palestinian television programming, reforming the key ministries of justice and finance.

The new Palestinian minister of interior, Nasser Yousef (refused by Arafat this post), proved to be a serious and professional internal security chief. Among his first decisions was the removal of most of the security chiefs who were responsible (directly or indirectly) for the state of chaos and the absence of the rule of law in Palestine. These changes have already been noticed as the Palestinian public has seen a drastic drop in cases of lawlessness, and serious investigation in any new reports of individuals or security personnel taking the law in their own hands.

Control over the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority has been removed from the PLO and the office of the president and placed under the direction of moderate Nabil Shaath’s information ministry. A few weeks ago, Shaath expelled a sheikh for a sermon that was transmitted on Palestinian TV.

One would expect that all these accomplishments would be matched by, at the minimum, an improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians. Israel continues to refuse to coordinate its prisoner releases; over 8,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails, many without trial or charge. Save for the redeployment in three Palestinian cities, the catastrophic closure imposed on the Palestinian cities in the West Bank is still valid. Palestinians are not allowed to travel from one West Bank town to another without a permit. Even those with permits in Bethlehem are still unable to drive their cars to Ramallah, or vice versa, and are forced to travel in shared public taxis.

Political unilateralism is very attractive to radicals who are afraid of compromise. To be fair, unilateralism is not only convenient for a reluctant Israeli prime minister not wishing to make substantial compromises during negotiations, it is also attractive to hardline Palestinians who see multilateralism as a means to press them to make unpopular compromises.

In the absence of substantial negotiations, small acts of violence are happening on a daily basis. Israeli soldiers are still killing Palestinians almost daily. Palestinian militants are firing some rockets into Israel and this low-level cycle of violence will no doubt burst into a major confrontation very quickly if not held in check.

Without a formal ceasefire and without a serious negotiating process, there is little incentive for the militants or the Israeli army to stop the violence. What we need now is a serious, effective and monitored ceasefire, to be followed immediately by serious multilateral talks in which Palestinians, Israelis and a third party (could be the Quartet or even the US) are talking, instead of acting unilaterally.

Any serious observer of the Middle East conflict will no doubt agree that what the Palestinian-Israeli conflict needs now is an immediate end to unilateralism. The opportunities we have today might not last long. Abbas’ political honeymoon will not last long and neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can afford unilateral politics, as usual, that have become the convenient way out. We need regular, substantive and effective multilateral talks now, otherwise we will soon regret missing this golden opportunity.