The probable recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations General Assembly this September might productively realign American policy toward the Muslim world or leave the Obama administration further sidelined and isolated. The strong push for recognition comes a moment when the Middle East, including Palestinian communities, is pulsating with democratic aspirations while the US is involved in multiple wars and counterterrorism operations in Muslim countries.
Outside a narrow diplomatic culture, an astonishing void of discussion exists on this development, if only because the existing parameters of debate over two-state and one-state solutions are frozen.
Here is how the process is moving. The Palestinian Authority’s leadership has been campaigning all year for recognition, winning support from 112 countries by January and setting of a goal of 150 by September. In the absence of UN Security Council support, because of an American veto, the General Assembly can extend official recognition. The Palestinians also plan to invoke UN Resolution 377, allowing the General Assembly to enforce resolutions where the Security Council is deadlocked. The U.S. may try to claim the Security Council can veto any such recommendation to the General Assembly, but it may be facing a majority of countries that have formally granted recognition.
Led by Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have formally recognized the Palestinian state, with Paraguay and Peru expected to follow. (New York Times, January 1, 2011) Israeli now worries that Germany, the United Kingdom and France will press the UN and European Union to lead the effort for a diplomatic settlement instead of waiting on the US. (New York Times, April 7, 2011)
Last week, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) endorsed the Palestinian effort, finding that Palestinian institutions compare favorably with those in other nation-states. (Reuters, April 6, 2011) The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, is a technocrat who previously worked for both the World Bank and IMF.
Many believe that the Palestinian statehood campaign is increasing pressure for an Israeli-Palestinian negotiated agreement before September, a possibility which is dimmed by the hardline politics of the current Netanyahu government. Already, however, a mainstream group of forty Israelis has released a proposal for a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, including a capital in East Jerusalem, as well as withdrawal from the Golan Heights. (New York Times, April 5, 2011) The proposal is acknowledged as a response to increased international pressure at a time of popular uprisings in the Arab world demanding democracy and self-determination.
Creation of a Palestinian state by the General Assembly would mean a significant step in addressing the grievances now contributing to both terrorism and the awakening across the Islamic world. Last year, on March 16, 2010, Gen. David Petraeus testified that the Israel-Palestine conflict was “fomenting anti-American sentiment” because of the widespread perception of a pro-Israeli American bias. Vice President Joe Biden also told the Israelis, “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” (Foreign Policy, March 13, 2010)
The new dynamic creates a possible alternative to the two-state solution that has been stalemated primarily by the U.S. policy, which gives Israel a de facto veto over the shape, scope and timing of any Palestinian statehood. The impasse is similar to the longtime British grant of an “Orange veto” over Northern Ireland, which was finally broken by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
So far the proposal lacks a means of including Gaza in the recognition, though that could be addressed through provisional lines and an internal mechanism for managing the conflict between the PA and Hamas, with the new Egyptian government playing a role.
Any UN recognition of Palestine would produce two states in reality. While key details like boundaries are unclear, the new Palestinian state would emerge in the West Bank with provisions for linkages to Gaza, assuming a coalition of interests between the Fatah and Hamas factions of the Palestinian national movement. Current Palestinian diplomatic offices would be officially recognized by the UN action.
The concept also implies a sharp rejection of the proposal for a “one state solution” popular among many Palestinian supporters, which would require Israel to dissolve into a unitary state.
Recognition of a new Palestinian state would alter the dynamic between Israel, Palestine and the international community. Both states would be headquartered at the United Nations. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians would take place on a state-to-state basis for the first time.
Defense minister Ehud Barak says that Israel faces a diplomatic “tsunami” if the Palestinians seek recognition in September, causing a “wide effort aimed at delegitimization” of Israel. (Washington Post, April 6) Israeli statesman Shimon Peres has traveled to the UN to campaign against the statehood vote, which would “put Israel in a diplomatic bind at a time when the peace process is at an impasse.” (New York Times, April 7, 2011). The pro-Israel Lobby is mobilizing American supporters to oppose the specter of a diplomatic threat, regardless of the consequences for U.S. isolation. In January, Rep. Howard Berman obtained unanimous support for Resolution 1734, condemning any effort to seek unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
The drive for UN recognition already is causing a greater Israeli interest in peace talks, if only to avoid the September UN vote. In early April, a mainstream group of forty Israelis released a proposal for a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, including a capital in East Jerusalem, and a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. (New York Times, April 5, 2011) The proposal is meant to respond to increased international pressure at a time of popular uprisings in the Arab world demanding democracy.
Why the existence of an independent Palestinian state would be a mortal threat to Israel is unexplained. But the proposal has momentum because the only alternative to the stalled possibilities of a negotiated two-state agreement is the resumption of war in the region.