US Affairs: A state by any other name...

The differences between the US and Israel on Palestinian sovereignty go beyond rhetoric.

netanyahu listens to obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu listens to obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
For weeks now, the United States and Israel have been reading from different scripts when it comes to Palestinian statehood, a discrepancy that wasn't resolved when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the White House last week. Instead, when President Barack Obama addressed reporters following his marathon meeting with Netanyahu, he spoke of the need to achieve "a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side-by-side in peace and security," while the PM, sitting beside him in the Oval Office, referred only to "an arrangement where Palestinians and Israelis live side-by-side in dignity, in security and in peace." Yet Israeli officials - including Netanyahu himself - and American Jewish leaders like to point out that when it comes down to it, the agreements between Israel and the US on Palestinian self-governance are larger than the differences. A senior Israeli official told reporters earlier this week that "the outline of a comprehensive regional agreement is a concept that we can agree upon with the Americans," an agreement which envisions a Palestinian state as part of its framework, adding that a central pillar of Israel's own peace plan is the road map, whose destination is a Palestinian state. And last week, Jewish leaders who took part in a conference call with a senior White House official noted that he stressed the two countries were not that far apart when it comes to the essence of the issue. "They really share the same goals. They may have some differences of opinion about how to achieve them, but this discussion was more about those shared goals," one participant said. Or, as Netanyahu put it at the Oval Office press conference, "The terminology will take care of itself, if we have the substantive understanding." But will it? While Netanyahu looks to strengthen his political and negotiating posture with his rhetorical stance, his very avoidance of the term "Palestinian state" could hurt Israel's position in the long term. Netanyahu says he wants to see Palestinian self-rule, but with Israeli security guarantees, such as control of airspace, water rights and the electromagnetic spectrum. As he said at the White House, "We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the State of Israel." And while the specific arrangements have never been worked out in the many years of Israeli-Palestinian talks (though some details were tentatively hashed out in discussions conducted under prime minister Ehud Olmert), the central tenet - that any Palestinian state be demilitarized - has long been a presupposition of negotiations. "In the United States and the West there's always been an implicit working assumption that a Palestinian state, should one be established, would be demilitarized," said Middle East expert Scott Lasensky of the US Institute of Peace. According to Lasensky, who served as an informal adviser to Obama during his election campaign, the US was very unlikely to countenance any Palestinian statehood formula that threatened Israeli security, owing to the "pivotal place given to Israeli security concerns in Washington." Such consonance with the US and the rest of the international community on this point raises the question: If Netanyahu's configuration for an autonomous Palestinian entity is so close to the popular conception of a Palestinian state, why not just come out and back it? THE ANSWER is some combination of political exigencies, ideological convictions and bargaining positions. Netanyahu's government is heavily reliant on right-wingers who oppose a Palestinian state and who want to see settlements continue; any significant move toward the Palestinians or serious concessions could jeopardize his coalition. As well, Netanyahu himself has expressed deep skepticism about a Palestinian state and its potential danger. And that has helped inform his current approach, which essentially demands that Israel receive assurances about the type of state in the works before accepting its creation. Whatever the merits of this approach, it carries with it some risk of backfiring. After all, if the Israelis are not willing to define a demilitarized, autonomous Palestinian entity as a state, why should the Palestinians? In Netanyahu's effort to hold a hard line, he in some ways creates a new line, making it easier for the Palestinians to claim that conditions on statehood, long seen as fairly self-evident from a Western perspective, in fact contradict the concept of sovereignty. For rhetorical support of the idea that demilitarized autonomy is not statehood, the Palestinians now need look no further than the prime minister of Israel. As the US and international community are committed to sovereignty for the Palestinians, this gives the latter an opening to effectively up their demands. While some degree of demilitarization has until now largely been accepted by Palestinians, according to former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith al-Omari, autonomy (as opposed to statehood) has never been an acceptable formulation nor has the concept of an Israeli presence in the form of control of airspace, borders, etc. "There was always an understanding that Palestine wouldn't be a fully militarized state, and I think there wasn't an appetite for a fully militarized state," said Omari. But "there was always complete Palestinian unanimity that Israel should not have any military rights over Palestinian territory." He added that Palestinian leaders have until now believed that they could win the backing of the Palestinian public for a state with circumscribed powers by still being able to make the argument that it's a sovereign, if limited, entity, and that the symbolism of statehood would outweigh complaints about the lack of a full Palestinian army. "If you have a package that at the end of the day you can credibly claim is a sovereign state," he said, "you can always sell the deal publicly to the Palestinians." But, lacking the construct that it's a state, he continued, the entity's specific capacities become more important to selling a deal. "If Netanyahu is removing the symbolic currency of statehood, I think the Palestinians will have to be much more hard-line in their negotiating position on the substance, because the Palestinians will then have to [rely on] selling the substance," he cautioned. It could also leave America in an awkward position. Though the US might be no more keen on a militarized Palestinian state with all the trappings of sovereignty than the Israelis, having publicly backed statehood, they will have more trouble supporting an Israeli position lacking that moniker. It is then that the differences of opinion could move towards a difference in goals.