No Easy Way to End Israel's Control over the Palestinians

A key dilemma for Israel is how to end control over the Palestinians: through negotiations, unilateral steps or a combination of both.


  1. The objective of this policy product is to examine the structural and institutional aspects of the process of ending Israel's control over the Palestinians.
  2. On the one hand, Israel has an existential need to end its control over the Palestinian population. On the other hand, there is no easy way to do so; negotiations, "unilateral steps" or a combination of both entail complex structural, procedural and institutional difficulties.
  3. Negotiation was the foundation of the Israeli-Palestinian political process prior to Israel's Disengagement from Gaza and throughout the Oslo Process.
  4. Disengagement has shown that it is possible to end control without Palestinian consent, albeit through coordination with third parties, especially the US.
  5. Following Disengagement, Israel's dilemma intensifies: should it negotiate, pursue further unilateral steps or combine the two options?
  6. From the point of view of Israel's Prime Minister, each alternative holds advantages and disadvantages.
  7. The conditions for a partnership between the Israeli and Palestinian sides are political will to sign an agreement and ability to uphold its obligations, on both sides.
  8. Present trends, primarily on the Palestinian side, indicate that prospects for such a partnership are decreasing. Hence, prospects for further unilateral moves by Israel seem to be increasing.


Ending the control over the Palestinian population (hereinafter "end of control") is an existential interest for the State of Israel.1 This underlying assumption is presently accepted throughout the Israeli political spectrum.

Nevertheless, substantial differences persist regarding the sequence and pace of the political process, content of agreements and other issues.

A key dilemma on the Israeli side is whether to pursue this interest vis-à-vis the Palestinians through negotiations, unilateral steps or both.2

The Oslo Process, from the Declaration of Principles (9/93) to the Taba Talks (1/01), was based on the perception that the end of control of the Palestinian population will inevitably lead to End of Occupation, End of Conflict and Finality of Claims; and that these aims will be attained through direct negotiations (Hereinafter Across-the-table-strategy – ATS).

An implication of this strategy is that Palestinian consent has been a prerequisite for the realization of an Israeli vital interest.

The Disengagement from Gaza (8/05) was based on the assumption that negotiations had been rendered futile and that end of control could not and should not be conditional upon Palestinian consent. 3

Following the Disengagement, Israel's political dilemma vis-à-vis the Palestinians intensifies: should the coming phases of the political process be based on negotiations or on further unilateral moves?

Theoretically, Israel's strategic options are two:

  1. Negotiations (Across-the-Table Strategy) – A strategy to serve Israel's interest by reaching agreement – formal or informal – with the Palestinians through the conceptual framework, structure or process of negotiations;
  2. Off-the-table-strategy – A strategy to serve Israel's interest vis-à-vis the Palestinians independent of their consent by a combination of Unilateral steps, and steps coordinated with third parties.

Since the beginning of the Oslo Process, five Israeli Prime Ministers have faced the dilemma of whether or not to negotiate with the Palestinians.4 Their experience is invaluable in designing the next political process. This paper examines this dilemma.


What are the advantages of negotiations with the Palestinian?

  1. International legitimacy – A political reality that is created based on an agreement will receive immediate and unconditional international support;
  2. Palestinian cooperation and concessions – Negotiations allow Israel to demand and receive Palestinian cooperation and concessions that are based on their free will;
  3. For some issues, mutual consent is essential such as regarding the Permanent Borders;
  4. Strengthening moderates – An agreement and political progress through negotiations seem to strengthen moderate Palestinian factions.

What are the obstacles to negotiations? – From Israel's perspective, structural and institutional obstacles to negotiations stem from the following:

  1. Palestinian ideological resistance to agreements with Israel – Several players on the Palestinian side object to interim agreements, Permanent Status Agreement or any other agreement with Israel. Some of them resort to violence and terror to serve their cause;
  2. The perception that time is working for the Palestinians (See Leverage of Time in Negotiations) – Some Palestinians believe that time is on their side. In other words, tomorrow's agreement will be better than today's.5 This is due to demographic trends, the rise of power of international legal institutions, and the success of the Palestinian efforts to de-legitimize Israel (See Anti-Zionism and The One-State Threat);
  3. Israel's unstable political system – Israel's political system is characterized by chronic instability. Differences of opinion regarding Israel's policy towards the Palestinians have shaped Israeli politics over the past two decades. All Israeli governments since the beginning of the 90's were based on coalitions built around the Prime Minister's strategy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of them were dismantled due to political crises related heretofore. Hence, most of Israel's Prime Ministers had only "one political bullet in the barrel", i.e. a coalition with a carrying capacity of only one meaningful political move, after which they had to go to elections. This reality serves as leverage for Palestinian leaders who may be tempted to prolong negotiations to the limits of the Israeli PM's coalition's carrying capacity.6 (See: Mismatch of Tenures in Negotiations);
  4. Dysfunctional Palestinian side – From Israel's perspective, the Palestinian political system is characterized by weak executive power and lack of willingness to confront radical factions.7

Combination of the aforementioned may cause a dynamic that can unseat the PM:

  1. Expansion of negotiation agenda and escalation of claims – Some Palestinians may pressure their leadership to expand the agenda for negotiations and to escalate the claims based on the perception that time is on their side (See Agenda of Negotiations on Permanent Status); 8
  2. Hence, the negotiations prolong – As a result of these trends, negotiations may extend to the end of the PM's coalition's carrying capacity;
  3. Compounded by terrorism – Weak Palestinian executive branch may not be able or willing to prevent terrorism, particularly at critical milestones, aiming to thwart the negotiations.9

Hence, Israel may face a predicament: unable to reach an agreement, on the one hand, and unable to break away from the negotiations due to internal and external pressure, on the other hand (See Suck-in Affect of Negotiations).


The concept of Off-the-table-strategy refers to a political process that is based on unilateral moves or coordination with relevant third parties, but not on negotiations with the Palestinian side or its consent.

What are the advantages of an off-the-table strategy?

  1. Undermining the threat of the One-State Solution10 – Israel can further marginalize the existential threat of the one-state solution through a series of steps that end effective control over the Palestinian population while upgrading the sovereign powers – political, economic and civilian – of the PA, thus leading it towards statehood;
  2. Independent of Palestinian consent or abilities – Off-the-table strategies defuse Israel's dependence on Palestinian Will or Delivery Capability. Furthermore, an effective off-the-table strategy may eliminate the conundrum of the Palestinian "all-or-nothing" approach regarding Permanent Status that is manifested in the objections of Abu-Mazen and other Fatah officials to a Palestinian State with Provisional Borders11 (PSPB);
  3. Negotiating with the USA and other 3rd parties – Israel may find negotiations with the US and other 3rd parties easier and more constructive than dealing with the Palestinians. For example, the main understandings concerning the Disengagement plan were negotiated with the US, Egypt and Quartet representatives;
  4. Accommodating Israeli public – Off-the-table strategies allow Israel to tailor political moves vis-à-vis the Palestinians around the general consensus of the Israeli public;
  5. Shifting the burden to the Palestinians – When Israel transfers powers and responsibilities to the PA, expectations will shift to the PA to assume responsibility.
  6. Disarming Palestinian opposition – The Palestinian side will have difficulty officially opposing an Israeli withdrawal from powers and responsibilities in its sovereign space, even if it does not favor such a move;
  7. A new set of policy options – Willingness to pursue off-the-table strategies expands the menu of policy-options available to Israel. For example, in 2005, unilateral steps were the only way for Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and not from the West Bank, or Upgrade the PA's Political Status without recognizing it as a state;
  8. Time can also work in Israel's favor – The threat of rejecting the principle of the Two-State Solution and embracing the one-state solution has been a central component of Palestinian leverage on Israel. Hence, marginalizing the threat of the one-state solution on the one hand, while leveraging Israel's economic and military advantages on the other hand, can shift the time leverage to Israel's side.

What are the disadvantages of an off-the-table strategy?

  1. Strengthening Palestinian resistance factions – Palestinian moderates, supporting a historical compromise with Israel, and resistance factions such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, loyal to the struggle against Israel, are battling over Palestinian public opinion. Currently it seems that Israeli unilateral steps are framed as a victory for the resistance factions and weaken the moderates;
  2. Israeli concession of "bargaining chips"– Transfer of territories, powers and jurisdictions to the Palestinians with no reciprocity may be a concession of "bargaining chips" that could have been used in negotiations on a Permanent Status Agreement12;
  3. No End of conflict or Finality of claims – Some of the outstanding issues can only be settled through negotiations such as Permanent Borders, Palestinian Refugees, Jerusalem and Holy Sites. Hence, no End of Conflict of Finality of Claims are feasible through an off-the-table strategy;
  4. By-the-book version of international law – Off-the-table strategies mandate de-facto negotiations with members of the international community, who assume the burden of representing the Palestinian side.
  5. Can the international pressure be relieved? – Some claim that unilateral steps may alleviate pressure on Israel and enhance Israel's legitimacy. The Disengagement may indicate that such steps in accordance with the principle of a Two-State Solution are internationally endorsed. However, unilateral steps seem to be ineffective if the objective is to alleviate international pressure for further "concessions" by Israel.

Hence, from Israel's perspective, off-the-table strategy may result in a juxtaposition of:

  1. Withdrawal under fire – Palestinian resistance factions will aspire to have Israeli withdrawal be under fire, in order to present it as their achievement.
  2. Pressure to return to the negotiation table – Israel is likely to be subject to increasing pressure to negotiate. The main argument is that if Israel is willing to take unilateral steps, it might as well negotiate and receive concessions in return.13

Are Negotiations and Off-the-Table Strategies Mutually Exclusive?

Some view negotiation and off-the-table strategies as mutually exclusive. Others see the potential for a hybrid combination of negotiations with a credible and viable off-the-table strategy (hereinafter "the hybrid approach").14

What are the advantages of the hybrid approach?

  1. The hybrid approach creates a basic service to Israel's national security interest by making possible an off-the-table strategy. However, successful negotiations, would offer an even better service to Israel's interests.
  2. During negotiations, a credible and viable off-the-table strategy creates a leverage on the Palestinian side and dismantles part of their leverage on Israel;
  3. The off-the-table option may serve to deflect pressure for uncomfortable compromises at the negotiating table;
  4. Good-faith negotiations that do not culminate with an agreement legitimize unilateral moves.

What are the disadvantages of the hybrid approach?

  1. Pursuing unilateral steps while negotiating may be seen as acting in bad faith;
  2. Pursuing unilateral steps while negotiating diminishes the incentives for the Palestinian leadership to confront the extremists, since they may not gain an agreement in return.

Israel's political dilemma vis-à-vis the Palestinians

Israel's political dilemma vis-à-vis the Palestinians emerges on the one hand, from Israel's need to end control over the Palestinian population, and on the other hand, from the fact that every political option – negotiations, unilateral steps or a combination of both – contain complex structural problems.

What are the conditions for successful negotiations vis-à-vis the Palestinians? The Re'ut Institute identifies several prerequisites for the establishment of a successful Israeli-Palestinian partnership (See What Makes an Israeli-Palestinian Partnership?):

  1. A shared objective – when Israel and the Palestinians aspire for similar agreement, chances for a better partnership arise. In contrast, for example, if Israel aims for an interim agreement while the Palestinians aim for a Permanent Status Agreement, a partnership may not work;
  2. An agreed time frame – Are both sides committed to a political process with an agreed time frame? For example, if elections are to be held in Israel in the near term, than only a Palestinian commitment to a short political process will make partnership possible.
  3. The identity of the interlocutor – On the Palestinian side, there is a gap between the formal and informal division of powers and jurisdictions between the PLO and the PA. This division affects the kind of agreements Israel can sign with the Palestinians. For example, according to the Interim Agreement and the Palestinian Constitutional Structure only the PLO, and not the PA, may negotiate the issue of refugees.
  4. Mutual will and an ability to negotiate, conclude, ratify and implement agreements - (See the concepts: Will, Carrying Capacity, Delivery Capability, Responsibility and Legitimacy).


This document analyzes strategies available to Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians: negotiations, off-the-table strategies or a hybrid of the two.

Negotiations and off-the-table strategies may be mutually exclusive or complementary. Their advantages and disadvantages have to be taken into account when designing the structure of the political process with the Palestinians.

An Israeli-Palestinian partnership to a political process that is based on negotiations can emerge when requirements regarding the quality of the political process and the maturity of the partners are met.

As long as these requirements are not met, the reasons for and chances of unilateral steps increase.

1 For further elaboration see the Re'ut products: Concept of a Viable Palestinian State; End of Occupation; End of Responsibility; Disengagement Plan; Gaza Strip; Occupation; Responsibility.

2 See Shavit Ari, Partition, Jerusalem: Keter, 2005: pp. 217-254 (In Hebrew).

3 For an analysis of the implications of The Disengagement Plan see The Political-International Challenges of the Disengagement Plan.

4 See Rabinovich Itamar, Waging Peace 1948-2003, Or-Yehuda: Dvir, 2004. Re. Rabin - Ibid, pp. 41-69; Peres – Ibid, pp. 71-74; Nethanyahu – Ibid, pp. 78-122; Barak – Ibid, pp. 123-127, 142-180; SharonIbid, pp. 181-184, 186-204, 212-219, 273-274.

5 This perception may be strengthened by comparing The Beilin – Abu-Mazan Document (10/95); Framework Agreement on Permanent Status (Draft) (9/00); The Clinton Ideas (12/00); The Taba Talks (1/01); The Geneva Initiative (10/03).

6 Re. the period from the Camp David Summit (7/00) until the Clinton Ideas (12/00) and the internal pressures on the Israeli prime minister, see Gelead Sher, Just Beyond Reach, Tel-Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth, 2001, Chapter 17: "One political bullet in the barrel", pp. 312-329, and Ross, Dennis, The Missing Peace, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004, Chapters 25-26, pp.712-780.

7 Since Arafat's death (11/04) and Abu-Mazen's election (1/05) the PA is undergoing a political-constitutional turmoil that stems from the struggle between the PA and the PLO, as well as between Fatah and the Hamas (see Palestinian Constitutional Structure).

8 Rabinovich Itamar, Waging Peace, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, p.67.and Sher, Ibid, p.404.

9 For example, the Interim Agreement (9/95) was negotiated under terrorism in Tel-Aviv, Beit-Lid, and other places (Rabinovich, Ibid, pp. 66-69); during the Taba Talks (1/01) a significant increase in terror attacks had occurred (Sher, Ibid, pp. 407-415).

10 See Re'ut concept One-State Threat.

11 Abu-Mazen stated that establishing a PSPB prior to a Permanent Status Agreement is a "trap" (New York Times, 2/14/05); Fatah Central Committee rejected a PSPB and supported a fully sovereign Palestinian state (6/30/05); Abu-Ala: "… there will be no state unless it has all the rights of a state, as well as the right of return." (7/26/05).

12 See Re'ut concepts: Palestinian Principle of Historical Compromise, Palestinian Ethos of Struggle and Palestinian Ethos of Armed Struggle.

13 Ze'ev Shiff, Ha'aretz, 10/11/2004; Benziman Uzi, Ha'aretz, 14/11/2004; Editorial, "Beyond Arafat on the Road to Peace", New York Times, 12/11/2004.

14 The concept Complementary Divergence, on which this strategy is based, refers to a condition when what seems to be contradictory is actually complementary.