Western Interests, Israeli Unilateralism, and the Two-State Solution


Western Interests, Israeli Unilateralism, and the Two-State Solution
  Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have spurred rather than inhibited settlement expansion.


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By Neve Gordon and Yinon Cohen

This essay analyzes the impact of Israeli unilateralism—specifically that of its settlement project—on the two-state solution. After exploring the relationship between unilateralism and power, the authors show, inter alia, that in-migration has accounted for about half the settlement growth since the international embrace of the land-for-peace formula in 1991, that the level of in-migration does not fluctuate according to government composition (right or left), and that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have spurred rather than inhibited settlement expansion. The essay is framed by a contrast with the Palestinian bid for full UN membership, rejected as unilateralism by the Western powers but in fact aimed at undercutting Israeli unilateralism and creating the conditions for meaningful negotiations.

President Mahmud Abbas’s failed bid for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations raises a number of pressing questions about unilateralism and the role it has played in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (the Quartet representative) rejected the Palestinian appeal, arguing that unilateral actions should be avoided. Even though the refusal to recognize a Palestinian state may have appeared convincing to those who believe in the significance of negotiations and the importance of resolving conflicts through dialogue and agreement, these leaders’ denunciation of Abbas’s unilateralism was actually disingenuous since it ignored two issues central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the totally unequal power relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and the fact that unilateral actions have been a defining component of the conflict from its very inception.

These two issues are, of course, related, and investigating them can help clarify the role unilateralism has played in the Israeli-Palestinian relations. The important question, we believe, is why, how, and to what end unilateralism has been used, and not merely whether it should be used. President Abbas did not introduce unilateralism into this conflict but rather was trying to radically change the way it is deployed as well as its objectives. His appeal therefore warranted a much more favorable response from Western leaders. Moreover, not only did these leaders’ reaction to the Palestinian bid for recognition ignore the power differential between the two parties and the history of unilateral actions, but it also negated their own countries’ declared policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


A resolution reached through negotiations requires a certain degree of parity in order to work. If one side has all or most of the power—and if there are no external checks and balances—then this powerful side is likely to dictate the terms of both negotiations and the terms of their outcome. The prospects that such unequal negotiations could ultimately succeed in achieving a mutually agreeable accord are also therefore dim, unless the weak side believes the price it would pay for bowing down at the negotiating table would be much lower than the price it would pay for refusing to settle. Furthermore, a wide gap in the power differential between the two parties leads to unilateral actions because the party that wields the power does not need to—and consequently is usually unwilling to—consult the other party when making policy choices that affect both sides. This, as we show below, leads the weaker party to adopt a unilateral approach as well.

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NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and is the author of Israel's Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).

YINON COHEN is Yerushalmi professor of Israel and Jewish studies and chair of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.


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