Territorial Withdrawal as Multilateral Bargaining: Revisiting Israel’s ‘Unilateral’ Withdrawals from Gaza and Southern Lebanon


Dr. Rob Geist Pinfold is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Haifa and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

The research area of territorial withdrawal continues to polarise scholars. Theorists are irreconcilably divided regarding questions of agency: is withdrawal primarily affected by the global politics, or domestic politics? Focusing on the causal power of processes and actors within the controlling state, scholars such as Ian Lustick emphasises the ability of ‘institutionalised, hegemonic beliefs’ to affect policy-making. It is these beliefs that determine the probability of withdrawal, generating bias towards certain policy options. Other authors have similarly highlighted domestic determinants of territorial policy. For instance, Dov Waxman describes the inputs affecting Israeli policy in the West Bank, claiming that: ‘whatever security value these territories held for Israel – always questionable – their ultimate significance was symbolic, rather than strategic’.

An essay recently published in The Journal of Strategic Studies tests the validity of this domestic-focused ideational framing, through two case studies: the Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, in the years 2000 and 2005 respectively. Each withdrawal is frequently designated as ‘unilateral’, in that Israel abandoned territory, without a negotiated agreement with an external actor. Accordingly, these ‘unilateral’ Israeli territorial exits apparently represent ideal case studies for illustrating the explanatory value of domestic-focused, constructivist theories of territorial withdrawal.

Yet, this essay demonstrates this inference is unfounded. Both withdrawals were more conventional than the literature acknowledges, in that exit was negotiated with external actors, who provided Israel with concessions, in exchange for territorial retrenchment. In Gaza and southern Lebanon, Israel simply replaced its local bargaining partners, with the US and the UN respectively. This essay therefore demonstrates that even in outlier cases of ‘unilateral’ exit, diplomatic bargaining between Israel and third parties played a key role.

Bargaining Through Diplomacy: Israel and Third Parties

Despite the common conception that the disengagement from Gaza lacked diplomatic involvement from external actors, the impetus for the policy originated with another actor in the international system: the US. Condoleezza Rice – former Secretary of State in the George W. Bush Administration – claims that by 2002, ‘we were in the midst of a full blown Middle East crisis and a deepening split with Israel’. According to Dov Weisglass – then Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Sharon – a warning from the Bush administration that it would no longer tolerate an impasse played a critical role engendering Israel’s withdrawal. Contrary to prevalent perceptions in case-specific literature, then, Israel’s exit from Gaza was not engineered in a vacuum, with no involvement from external actors.

Though withdrawal from southern Lebanon was not the result of US pressure, a similar perception that global coercive diplomacy could or would constrain Israel underlined the policy. Prime Minister Barak overruled IDF demands to retain a ‘limited’ Israeli presence in southern Lebanon, stating that: ‘I want everyone to understand me clearly. I do not want a tactical redeployment, I want to change the strategic equation’. The new ‘strategic equation’ consisted of employing withdrawal to increase global sympathy for Israeli political and military stances. If, after the withdrawal, hostile actors continued to attack Israel, the international community would support a forceful response. This differed significantly to the territorial status quo, where Israel was seen worldwide as an illegitimate occupier.

Concurrently, input from third parties in each withdrawal was far from limited to pressure and the perceived legitimacy of military responses. In the case of Gaza, US officials became directly involved in determining the scale of withdrawal. Long before the withdrawal, the Israelis presented the US with several options, spanning a limited evacuation of several small West Bank settlements, to withdrawal from most of the territory, alongside an exit from Gaza. In response, US officials ruled out an extensive withdrawal, ensuring Israel would leave the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank alone. Why the US ruled out a wider withdrawal remains the subject of speculation. What is not in doubt is that Israel’s Gaza withdrawal cannot be reduced to domestic processes and actors alone.

The replacement of the local bargaining partner with a third party was not entirely unprecedented: withdrawal from Lebanon involved the same methodology, but a divergent negotiating partner. Prime Minister Barak’s then-Chief of Staff, Danny Yatom, recalls that ‘we opted to withdraw in full coordination with the UN […] it was not unilateral’. Indeed, the Lebanon withdrawal was marked by reciprocal concessions and intensive bargaining between Israel and the UN. Because the prolonged Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon blurred the distinction between both nations’ sovereign territory, the Israeli-Lebanese border was painstakingly delineated. Teams from the UN consulted with Israel, Syria and Lebanon to determine the sovereign owner of the territory in question. Israel, in turn, ceded to UN demands; when the IDF balked at moving ten kilometres of fence because it violated Lebanese territory by 40 centimetres, Prime Minister Barak overruled military objections. Yet, the UN also took the unprecedented step of agreeing to land swaps with Israel on behalf of Lebanon, exchanging sovereign Lebanese territory that Israel refused to leave, for compensatory territorial concessions from Israel.

            In the case of the Gaza withdrawal, negotiations with the US respectively were also undertaken on a quid pro quo basis. Israel sought political concessions from the Bush administration, in exchange for withdrawal. These negotiations culminated in a letter written by George W. Bush to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Firstly, the letter provided a guarantee that: ‘the United States will do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan’, allaying Israeli fears the international community would demand unpalatable concessions in future negotiations. The letter also advocated ‘a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue’ through ‘the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel’. All of these declarations represented policy shifts from the US.

Alongside these changes to US policy was an equally controversial sentence, proclaiming that: ‘it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return’ to Israel’s pre-1967 War borders’. Previously, the US expressed no official policy on refugees, whilst advocating a freeze on construction in all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These shifts caused audible gasps from the press as the President read from the text. Despite this shock, the wording was no coincidence, representing US concessions in a bilateral bargaining relationship. Rather than constitute an uncompensated ‘unilateral’ withdrawal, the Israelis received far-reaching policy concessions for leaving Gaza, illustrating the reciprocity underlining Israel’s exit from the territory.

In conventional, non-unilateral cases of withdrawal, territorial retrenchment often results from negotiations with other actors in the international system, leading to reciprocal concessions and trade-offs. In the cases examined here, the alterations to this methodology were tactical, rather than strategic. Contrary to predominant framings, the Israeli exits share a commonality with other cases of territorial retrenchment, as negotiations between Israel and other actors, entailing concessions and reciprocity, played an instrumental role in generating withdrawal. That this was true for supposedly ‘unilateral’ exits suggests that multilateral bargaining will manifest even more saliently in other withdrawals, which are not perceived as unilateral. Theoretical approaches to withdrawal must therefore account for the causal role of external inputs, rather than just domestic processes alone. In sum, no withdrawal is truly ‘unilateral’ in its strictest definitional sense.

Image – Residents protest against the evacuation of the Israeli community Kfar Darom

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