Using the 2005 unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a case study, this article exposes an apparent paradox: circumstances may exist in which an outcome that serves the interests of parties to a conflict cannot be achieved through bilateral negotiation but can be achieved by unilateral action. Although the withdrawal was seen at the time as serving the interests of both the Israeli government and the Palestinians, we argue that the same result could not have been achieved through bilateral negotiations. “Behind-the-table” internal conflicts on each side would have made it impossible for the leaders to agree on the scope of these negotiations.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's success in implementing his Gaza withdrawal was attributable in significant measure to his ability to maintain ambiguity about his long-run plans for the West Bank. Only by focusing attention on Gaza was he able to build the necessary coalition to implement the controversial move. The Palestinian leaders, on the other hand, could never have agreed to come to the table to negotiate about Gaza alone — they would have insisted that the scope of any negotiations address a broad range of final status issues.
In this article, we identify some of the lessons that the Gaza example teaches regarding the utility and limits of unilateralism as well as the benefits and potential costs of employing ambiguity as a strategy to help accomplish a controversial move. Finally, we also explore the aftermath of the withdrawal and its many missed opportunities for improving the outcome. We suggest that, even when acting unilaterally, leaders should carefully consider the probable impact of their actions on the internal conflicts of their adversaries.