What It Takes To Be a State

By Leonard Fein

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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‘Look, Ma, I’m a State!” is not the way it works. You may wake up one morning a-tingle with statehood, bursting with national fervor, impatient for a prize too-long deferred, even with your flag ready to be raised and your anthem to be sung, but all that doesn’t mean you’re ready — not, at any rate — for a passably democratic state.

A democratic state has essential institutional requirements. It needs a legislature that is seen as representing the people, and it needs an executive accountable to the people, and it needs a police force to see to it that its laws are obeyed and a court system to enforce contracts, interpret laws, judge all those credibly accused of violating the law. If it is to be a responsible state, it needs to provide for education and health, as well; to take care of the land and air and water, the roads and the taxes and elections; to tolerate and perhaps even encourage a free and responsible press, and the list goes on, and on.

Then, too, a democratic state depends on democratic habits — on a people’s readiness to resolve differences through debate and negotiation rather than through violence, on the readiness of the governors to regard themselves as subject to the laws of the land and of the courts to ensure the rule of law, among others.

According to these criteria, the Palestinian people are not ready for statehood.

But it is in the international community’s interest generally, and in Israel’s interest specifically, that there be, as quickly as possible, a Palestinian state, a state that is born — as Palestine inevitably must be — with a troubled and contentious history but that is free from other major birth defects. History does have consequences, and for that reason Palestine will have to be subject to significant restrictions regarding the size and equipment and even the mandate of its armed forces. But although the new Palestine ought not be fully sovereign with regard to the nature of its army and its police, it cannot otherwise be born with truncated sovereignty, lest its citizens feel themselves occupied even when their occupation is done. Specifically, it cannot be a disfigured state, held together only by splices, nor may it be deprived of its fair share of water resources.

Likewise, the birth of a Palestinian state, thought it is to Israel’s advantage, cannot impose unbearable or unrealistic burdens on Israel, lest Israelis conclude that the costs of such a state outweigh its prospective benefits. Specifically, that means the “right of return,” which some interpret to mean an unlimited right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, must be set aside. The purpose of Palestinian statehood is not to rewrite history; it is to enable a pacific future.

If all that be so, then the path of these next few years becomes clear. The Palestinians must be helped to develop both the institutions and the habits of statehood, much as the pre-Israel Jews of what was then Palestine did through the Jewish Agency and through the creation of political parties — most of which, most of the time, accepted the rules of the democratic game. To promote these purposes, the European Union is the obvious patron.

At the same time, Israel and Israelis must be persuaded that Palestine’s growing preparation for responsible democratic statehood does, in fact, make a pacific future plausible, and hence attractive. Here the American role becomes critical, both as Israel’s ally and as an active monitor of developments on the E.U./Palestine side of the necessary equation.

The road surely will be bumpy. Much will depend on whether leadership both in Israel and among the Palestinians is adequately courageous, leadership in both Europe and America sufficiently persistent. In his joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush said, “I think it is fair to say that I believe we’ve got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state.” It is possible that all he meant was actual dollars, invested by the United States in the development of the Palestinian economy and in Israel, too, in order to enhance its security.

But it is also possible that what he had in mind was spending his own political capital, which, in the wake of his re-election, he evidently believes is ample. That only can mean a readiness to do battle with those elements of the American Jewish community who reject the idea of a Palestinian state, who prefer the status quo or perhaps something still more draconian. One legitimately wonders whether Bush will have the patience for such a battle, especially as he will be fighting on so many other fronts at the same time — Iraq, plus Social Security reform, plus tax cuts, plus Supreme Court nominees — all this with the freedom a second term allows, but also within the very real constraint of limited time.

But if that is in fact what the president intends, then it also will be, at last, time for the majority of America’s Jews, all those who favor a two-state solution, whose eyes are fixed more on the future than on the past, to put a decisive end to the American Jewish habit of interpreting any deviation from the “communal line” as inherently “anti-Israel.” It will be time, at last, to say once and for all that anything contributing to the realization of a responsible two-state solution is decisively pro-Israel, and deserves our enthusiastic support. For Israel’s sake, we ought not — dare not — be silent.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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