There may be one point in the Middle East conflict on which we can all agree: It’s complicated.
It is precisely for that reason that outside parties can’t simply declare a Palestinian state and call it a day. And it’s why we should be concerned over the notion, which is being increasingly bandied about, that European countries might hold out the promise of recognition to a Palestinian state, even if it is declared unilaterally and outside of a negotiated process.
Citing unnamed Israeli and European diplomatic sources, Haaretz reported last month that France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was pushing an initiative within the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state by the end of 2011, even if Israel and the Palestinians had not yet reached a final agreement. Kouchner had previously told a French publication that he “can imagine the rapid proclamation of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiations on borders. I’d be tempted by that…. I’m not sure I have a following, or even to be right [about it].”
Kouchner has since backed away from this tentative and somewhat ambiguously worded comment. France’s foreign ministry told the JTA that the comments were merely a “reflection, an idea,” and stressed that Kouchner does not want to “impose a [Palestinian] state” outside the context of a final agreement.
Let’s hope that the French are sincere in their disavowal of support for a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. This was not, however, the first time that the specter of European unilateralism has reared its head. Last fall, when Sweden held the EU’s rotating presidency, a draft EU document was circulated to European foreign ministers specifying that East Jerusalem should be the capital of the Palestinian state — effectively threatening to predetermine an issue that should be left to the parties to negotiate. Thankfully, this language was stripped from the final document.
There is a great risk in straying from the accepted path of negotiation. Why would the Palestinians agree to talk or compromise if they believe they will be handed a state by the EU? Moreover, the imposition of a solution by outside forces would undermine Israel, which continues to have legitimate security issues connected to a decades-long history of Palestinian terrorism and must be addressed via negotiated guarantees.
The 1993 Oslo Accords, the first agreement concluded between Israel and the Palestinians, spelled out criteria for moving toward a two-state solution. The Oslo process was meant to provide the infrastructure for all future negotiations. The process since then has been filled with starts and stops. But Oslo did spell out the steps for reaching resolution of the conflict.
Oslo is not perfect, and the framework it established does not provide guidance in dealing with a divided Palestinian camp, which itself undermines peace efforts. One side of the Palestinian divide, led by Hamas, rejects Israel’s right to exist and embraces terror. The other, which has been the Palestinian interlocutor, is recognized as being weak and seemingly unwilling or unable to deliver sustained negotiations.
Given these realities, bottom-up efforts aimed at economic empowerment are vital to achieving a successful two-state solution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad agree on that. Fayyad is working on building infrastructure necessary for a Palestinian state, work that he has said he hopes to complete by 2011. But even if that occurs, the notion of unilaterally declaring an independent Palestinian state would be a non-starter without negotiations with Israel.
As for top-down efforts, there is a place for outside parties to encourage the process, but not to predetermine the outcome of negotiations. Most recently, there has been the American initiative to jump-start the peace process by launching “proximity talks,” in which the Obama administration’s envoy, George Mitchell, is expected to shuttle between the two parties. This is a good start, though it is no substitute for direct negotiations.
The two most important players are — and must continue to be — Israel and the Palestinians. Ultimately, a peace accord will only be reached by these two parties meeting face-to-face across a negotiating table and working out their differences.
It is unacceptable to try to sidestep negotiations. The situation is too complicated for that.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.