As the Palestinians prepare for another attempt to win recognition as a state at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama has a rare opportunity to show true friendship for Israel in a way that sets him apart from and ahead of his rival. He can welcome the Palestinian request and promise to support it. On certain conditions, that is.
How in heaven’s name could supporting a U.N. Palestine resolution be an act of friendship toward Israel? Simple: It could restart negotiations, with Israel in a stronger position.
Israeli leaders often complain that while they accept the principle of Palestinian statehood, they can’t get there unless the Palestinians first sit down and negotiate. Palestinian leaders counter that previous negotiations have been fatally flawed by the asymmetry of an occupying power sitting across from a subject people. Elevating the Palestinians to statehood status would allow state-to-state negotiations between equals.
Many Israelis may argue that this solution is worse than no solution—that it requires them to give away the store before talks even begin. In fact, it needn’t require them to concede anything they haven’t agreed to already, namely the end result of Palestinian statehood. Everything else — the actual borders, security arrangements, refugees, Jerusalem, water — would be left to the negotiators. The key for Israel is that its troops remain in place on Palestinian soil until everything is signed and sealed.
But wouldn’t Israel face unbearable international pressure to withdraw from the new Palestinian state the moment it’s declared, without nailing down agreements on borders, demilitarization and other essentials? That would depend on the language of the U.N. resolution. And that’s where Washington comes in. If America simply declares its opposition to the bid and turns its back, the result is likely to be a resolution that recognizes Palestine along the pre-1967 cease-fire lines and effectively invites it to drag Israel before the International Criminal Court for condemnation and sanctions.
A serious American diplomatic counter-offensive might possibly derail the Palestinian initiative before it comes to a vote, as it did last year. But that gambit might not work twice. And even if it does work, it leaves Israel another year down the road with no solution in sight, further weakens Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and strengthens Hamas. Anyway, last year’s effort netted Obama zero gratitude. He’ll probably try regardless, but should he?
Consider: If Washington engages the Palestinians it can put its stamp on the content of the resolution, including not only what’s in it — recognition of Palestinian statehood — but more important, what’s not in it and must be negotiated: borders, refugees and security. It could even demand recognition of Israel’s Jewish character — perhaps through a preamble noting Palestinian acceptance of the 1947 U.N. partition of historic Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state.
The best known Israeli proponent of welcoming the Palestinian U.N. statehood bid is former Shin Bet internal security service chief Ami Ayalon. It’s part of a larger strategy that he calls “coordinated” or “constructive unilateralism,” spelled out in an April 24 New York Times Op-Ed essay that he co-wrote with former Ehud Barak aide Gilad Sher and hi-tech entrepreneur Orni Petruschka. The essay mainly addressed the steps Israel can take to move closer to a two-state peace settlement in the absence of negotiations, given that the authors don’t think either side is politically able to sit down and talk right now.