The much talked about effort to introduce a resolution at the United Nations seeking U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state is fast upon us.
It is another classic mistake by Palestinian leadership.
To put the matter bluntly, this maneuver is not really about a Palestinian state. Every Israeli prime minister going back at least to the year 2000, and including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has made it clear in word and action that a goal of negotiations is to establish a Palestinian state living side-by-side the Israeli state in peace and security.
In 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, with President Bill Clinton’s support, was willing to agree to a Palestinian state on more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza, while dismantling 80 percent of the settlements and sharing Jerusalem. Yasir Arafat, then-head of the Palestinian Authority, rejected it and turned to rioting and suicide bombs.
Several years later, the next Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, known as right-wing and as an architect of the settlements policy, pulled Israel out of the Gaza Strip, including uprooting all the Israeli settlers in Gaza. You may remember the TV images of Israeli policemen forcibly removing resistant settlers from their homes. Sharon was determined to change the equation by this move, hoping it would enable the Palestinians to show their determination to take the first steps toward independence and statehood in Gaza.
Instead, Israel got rockets launched from Gaza at Israel’s civilian population. And it got the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, the Islamic extremist organization that, among other things, openly rejects Israel’s right to exist, openly espouses anti-Semitic themes including denial of the Holocaust and engages in terrorist activity.
Next came Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who in 2008 worked with the Bush Administration in what was called the Annapolis Process, and offered even more to the Palestinians for an independent state that had been offered before. Again, the Palestinian side, this time led by Mahmoud Abbas, failed to respond.
And now, Israel has another prime minister, also referred to as “right-wing,” who repeatedly makes clear that a Palestinian state is in the cards. Netanyahu has referred to the need for such a state in order for there to be peace, most recently in an address before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He has not only talked about a Palestinian state, but indicated that much of the West Bank, in addition to Gaza, would be the territorial makeup of such a state.
If all this is true, that one Israeli leader after another acknowledges the need for a Palestinian state, what then is so terrible about the Palestinians coming to the U.N. in September to have the international body unilaterally recognize such a state?
The answer lies in a few words I earlier used about Israel’s attitudes toward the issue of a Palestinian state. I said that Israel saw such a state as “a goal of negotiations.” I emphasize the word “a”, not “the” key ingredient. Because the truth is today (and I would argue, going back over 64 years) the key ingredient for ending the conflict and bringing a two-state solution into reality is the need for the Palestinians finally to recognize the fundamental right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.
Had the Palestinians been ready to accept this fundamental point in 1947, when the U.N. recommended partitioning Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab, there would have been a Palestinian state coming into existence in May 1948, the same time the Israeli state did. And there would have been no wars, no refugee problems, and no settlements.
Instead, the Palestinians were more interested in destroying the new Jewish state than building their own. And they, together with five Arab states, went to war against Israel, and the rest is history.
I say this not to rehash or refight the past, but to point out that this very same theme continues to this very moment to be the crux of the problem. Indeed, it continues to be the main obstacle to a Palestinian state.
The decision by the Palestinians to go to the U.N. is painted by Palestinian leadership as a product of what they label Israeli intransigence. But, as I pointed out, that so-called intransigence is an illusion. Israel has been ready and willing to see a Palestinian state, if only the Palestinians were ready to accept Israel and negotiate an end to the conflict with the Jewish state.
Over the decades, the Palestinians have employed a variety of approaches in order to avoid accepting Israel’s existence. At the beginning it was war; then came economic boycott of Israel; then came terror against Israel; more recently, stepped up efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state; and, now, the impending move at the U.N.
Let’s be clear: the move to have U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state is directly in line with all these other tactics to avoid negotiating in good faith and making peace with the state of Israel.
The Palestinians are hoping the U.N. gives them legitimacy as an independent state without having to end the conflict with Israel, which is not far removed strategically from the original Palestinian decision in 1947.
This is tragic: the war of the Palestinians and Arabs against Israel has always been harmful to the Jewish state: harmful in the loss of human life, in the economic impact, in the psychological toll. But it has been much more harmful to the Palestinians themselves, who have paid the greatest price for their leaders’ obsession with rejecting Israel.
I thought the Palestinians had begun to change when Salam Fayyadbecame prime minister of the Palestinian Authority a few years ago. He was the first Palestinian leader whose focus was not on how terrible Israel supposedly was, but how to effect real change in the lives of the Palestinian people.
There is now a debate among Middle East experts about how much change Fayyad has brought to the Palestinian economy, civil society, the courts, and the security system. Whether or not he has been successful, it has been good that he began to educate his public that the main goal should be to build Palestinian institutions. This is important to prepare for statehood and to show the Israelis that Palestinians truly want to live side-by-side in peace, and not to use the status of a Palestinian state as a weapon to continue the conflict.
Now, however, the refusal of the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table with Israel, together with the U.N. declaration moves, makes one question whether this new realism by the Palestinians is taking hold after all.
Unilateral evasive tactics at the U.N. are anything but realism. They are, rather, a direct descendant of all the illusions by the Palestinian leadership that have been so harmful.
If only Arab states could join them, they said, they could destroy Israel. If only there is an economic boycott, they said, Israel will disappear. If only there is enough terrorism, they said, Israel will fold and lose its morale. If only the international media would be critical enough of Israel, they said, Israel would be isolated. And now, if only the U.N. would give them a Palestinian state, they say, Israel will be delegitimized and a Palestinian state will come into being.
The truth is passing such a resolution in the General Assembly will neither advance the Palestinians toward the goal of a state, nor will it help the peace process. All prior agreements between Israelis and the Palestinians require that peace could only be determined through negotiations, through the give and take process to reach normalcy.
Here are some of the reasons why unilateralism will only hurt the Palestinians and the peace process:
- After such a declaration, the Palestinians would only control 40 percent of the West Bank, far less than they need for a state, and far, far less than Israel has offered to them in negotiations.
- Israel would see the Palestinians as violating the agreement of 1995 which states that “neither side will initiate or take any steps that will change the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” Such a violation would make it harder for Israel to return to the table because they would question Palestinian intentions.
- The declaration will falsely raise the expectations of the Palestinian people. The disappointment that would follow could increase the chances of an outbreak of violence, which, as always, would harm the Palestinians themselves and erode the economic gains they have made.
In other words, the Palestinian initiative at the U.N. is bad for the Palestinians, bad for the Israelis and bad for the chances of peace.
The Obama Administration, to its credit, recognizes this. Not only has it publicly opposed the U.N. initiative, but it has worked diligently behind the scenes to find a way to prevent it from happening and to renew negotiations.
There is enough turmoil in the Middle East already, not to mention turmoil in Europe and here in the U.S. The last thing America needs is another Palestinian uprising. Every indication is that the U.S. will veto any effort by the Palestinians to bring their resolution to the Security Council and try to get as many votes against it in the General Assembly.
So where do we go from here? The path to peace and a two-state solution is clear. Each side has to accept the legitimacy of the other’s narrative. Israelis have responsibilities to recognize Palestinian claims and to negotiate to achieve a Palestinian state. Palestinians have to finally accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state; to acknowledge that Palestinian refugees will be resettled in a new Palestinian state the way Jewish refugees were resettled in the new Jewish state; and to accept the end of the conflict and the end of future demands.
With all the bad news, in the long run I am not a pessimist. I believe peace can be achieved because, ultimately, rationality can prevail and the real interest of the people can be served.
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