Efforts to stop the Palestinians from winning statehood at the UN are misguided and self-defeating
Sep 24th 2011 | from the print edition
THE Palestinians are edging closer to getting a recognised state, at least on paper. Their application to the UN’s Security Council, pencilled in for September 23rd, will be rebuffed by an American veto. But if they then go to the UN General Assembly, which seems likely sooner or later, the Palestinians will win an overwhelming majority. The “observer” status that would be given to them would be similar to that of the Vatican—a position short of full membership, which can be conferred only by the Security Council. It would not make an immediate difference on the ground but would help the Palestinians on their way to the real thing by giving them a diplomatic fillip. It should be encouraged, for reasons of both principle and practice.
The principle is simple: the Palestinians deserve a state, just as the Israelis do. The United States, the European Union and the Israeli government have all endorsed a two-state solution. There is broad agreement that the boundary should be based on the pre-1967 one, with land swaps allowing Israel to keep its biggest settlements close to the line, in return for the Palestinians gaining land elsewhere; Jerusalem should be shared; and the Palestinians should give up their claimed right of return to Israel proper. That still leaves much room for negotiation. But provided that the Palestinian request at the UN, still unfiled as The Economist went to press, does not undermine the basic terms of this deal, it is hard to see why any peacemaker, including America’s Barack Obama, should oppose a proposal that nudges Palestine closer to real statehood (see article).
The practical and procedural politics of the UN is trickier, but unless the last-minute negotiations deliver something dramatic, the arguments in favour of at least securing the Vatican option surely outweigh stasis. Israel’s government, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, and his backers abroad, especially in the United States Congress, insist that Palestinian statehood is premature: instead of going to the UN, the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table without tiresome preconditions, such as demanding a freeze on the building of Jewish settlements. Mr Obama, keen to reassert his pro-Israel credentials before next year’s election, seems likely to oppose even the Vatican option. Some congressmen are now preparing bills that would punish the Palestinians for their temerity.
This is barmy. The argument that the Palestinians must resume negotiations before getting statehood is specious. Why on earth should a change in status at the UN stop people talking? Besides, the negotiations have been going nowhere—and Mr Netanyahu has been the biggest stumbling-block. Since his grudging acceptance two years ago of the two-state principle, Israel’s prime minister has shown no eagerness or flexibility in his purported pursuit of a deal. Settlement-building on the West Bank, which he has refused to stop (barring a partial nine-month freeze), is no mere side issue; the Palestinians accurately liken it to the spectacle of two people negotiating over how to share a pizza while one of them continues to eat it. (Unlike the UN status, this does change things on the ground.) In his speech to Congress in May Mr Netanyahu refused to accept that Jerusalem, whose eastern Arab-populated part the Palestinians see as their capital, should be shared. He even inveighed against the notion that negotiations over the boundary should be on the basis of the pre-1967 line with swaps.
The Palestinians have hardly been faultless. Mahmoud Abbas, their leader, has often dithered. He muffed a half-chance for a deal with Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, three years ago. But he is the most peace-minded Palestinian leader the Israelis are likely to get. Were he now to back away from his UN bid, his clout among his own people would shrivel. The more extreme Palestinians, in particular the Islamists of Hamas, oppose the UN bid precisely because it would, if successful, strengthen the hand of their more flexible compatriots. If a UN resolution reaffirmed support for two states broadly along the 1967 border, those who reject Israel’s existence, calling for a single state on all the land encompassing Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, would be wrong-footed.
This is not to give Mr Abbas carte blanche. He should see whether the Europeans can produce anything (see Charlemagne). Assuming that his bid for full UN membership is blocked, he should rapidly revert to the Vatican option, along with a bevy of provisos to reassure the Israelis. He should agree to refrain from trying to arraign Israel in the International Criminal Court for its past actions. And at some point, Mr Abbas must admit to his people that most of the refugees will never return to Israel proper: that is the price of partition.
A more secure Israel amid the Arab spring
In truth, Israel will be safer when a proper Palestinian state has been consolidated. That is a point that too few Israelis and their American supporters appreciate. This newspaper has argued steadfastly for the right of Israel to exist. We abhor the creeping delegitimisation and demonisation of Israel. But we also believe that the Palestinians deserve a state of their own. These two beliefs are entirely compatible. By his intransigence Mr Netanyahu has played into the hands of those who would destroy Israel. In blocking any Palestinian aspirations at the UN, America is helping extremists on both sides.