A specter is haunting Israel. As the Palestinian Authority is threatening to declare statehood in September with UN recognition, many Israelis seem to believe that the Apocalypse is near. What is approaching, however, is not a Big Bang but a Big Flop.
The creation of a Palestinian state has already been proclaimed, and the admission of this “state” to the UN has already been recommended by the General Assembly. On November 15, 1988, Yasser Arafat proclaimed in Algiers the establishment of “The State of Palestine” with Jerusalem as its capital and Arafat as its president. One month later, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that acknowledged “the proclamation of the State of Palestine” and that replaced the PLO with “Palestine” at the UN. One hundred and four states voted in favor of the resolution, forty-four abstained, and two (the US and Israel) voted against. Since then, the UN General Assembly has passed many resolutions supporting Palestinian statehood.
UN General Assembly resolutions, however, are not binding (as opposed to Security Council resolutions). They are mere recommendations. The General Assembly does not and cannot establish states. Contrary to a widespread misconception, the UN did not establish the State of Israel. On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly only approved the recommendation of UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) to divide the British Mandate between a Jewish state and an Arab state. This approval was a non-binding opinion. What established the State of Israel were seven decades of labor and a war of Independence in which the Jews fought by themselves without any help from the UN (though with the military backing of a Soviet satellite –Czechoslovakia).
Nor can the General Assembly admit new members at the UN without the approval of the Security Council. If one of the five permanent members of the Security Council puts its veto, the “State of Palestine” will not be accepted to the UN (Kosovo is not a UN member because of Russia’s veto). Hence the diplomatic efforts deployed by Israel and by the PA to lobby the Security Council’s two wavering veto-holders (Britain and France).
The difference between 1988 and 2011, of course, is that the PLO and Hamas partially control the West Bank and Gaza. Back then, the PLO was operating from Tunis and Hamas was in its infancy. Territorial control, even a partial one, makes the Palestinian “declaration of independence” more potent. The 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States lays down the most widely accepted formulation of the criteria of statehood in international law:
1. A permanent population;
2. A defined territory;
3. A government;
4. A capacity to enter into relations with other states.
The PA fits the bill, but with two caveats that will nurture the upcoming diplomatic struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.
Until last week, the Palestinians had two governments: a Fatah government in the West Bank and a Hamas government in Gaza. While the recent Hamas-Fatah deal officially puts an end to this duality, the new Palestinian government is made up of a terrorist organization recognized as such by the US, the EU, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Israel. The Palestinians will try to obtain the “moral laundering” of Hamas (they can count on the support of countries such as Russia, Turkey, Norway, and Switzerland), while Israel will try and convince the EU not to remove Hamas from its black list.
The second caveat has to do with territory. The “Palestinian territory” is not defined. It is disputed. Hamas openly claims all of Palestine, while Fatah will officially do with the entirety of the West Bank, of Gaza, and of East Jerusalem (a review of PA schoolbooks, TV programs, and public speeches in Arabic suggests otherwise). Mahmud Abbas’ claim that the entire West Bank “belongs” to the Palestinians lacks both historical and legal basis. The 1949 “Green Line” was a temporary armistice line between Israel and its Arab aggressors. UN Security Council Resolution 242 does not require an Israeli withdrawal to those lines. The West Bank was ruled (and annexed) by Jordan between 1949 and 1967; there never was a Palestinian state there in the past.
The Palestinians are trying to obliterate these facts by arguing that their territorial claims are backed by international law. They are not. But most countries endorse the Palestinians’ territorial claims. As for the Obama Administration, it has neither endorsed nor repudiated President Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon (from April 14, 2004), which stated inter alia that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
The true purpose of the September vote is not to declare and recognize a state that has already been declared and recognized in the past. Its true purpose is to obtain three things from the international community:
1. To abandon the demand that the Palestinians renounce their claim about the “right of return” as a condition for statehood;
2. To grant legitimacy to Hamas;
3. To de-legitimize any Jewish presence beyond the “green line” (including in Jerusalem’s Old City).
While the September vote at the UN General Assembly will be legally meaningless, it will implicitly recognize the “right of return” and whitewash Hamas’ hideous ideology and crimes. As we Israelis are about to celebrate 63 years of independence, our struggle for it is far from being over.