Few issues have so discombobulated the American Jewish community — to say nothing of the Israeli government — as the prospect of a United Nations vote on recognition of Palestine. Students of the matter debate whether such a vote would have any practical significance, but most Jews, as well as most Jewish organizations, have viewed the idea itself as subversive. And indeed, the Obama administration has pledged to veto the matter if it comes before the U.N. Security Council.
It is fairly easy to see why the prospect of the U.N.’s recognition of Palestine provokes such anxiety. Many people — too many — persist in viewing the Israel-Palestine conflict as a zero-sum game: If the Palestinians win, the Israelis lose. Moreover, recognition would usher in a new and uncertain day; better the devil we know.
And that is why a dazzling opportunity is rejected in favor of a dismal status quo.
Imagine that instead of determined opposition, the American government were to hold private discussions with the Palestinians, indicating to them the elements of a resolution that America would be comfortable supporting, one that even Israel might not oppose. Imagine that the Palestinians, who are very aware of the potential complications of a victory at the U.N. — specifically, that such a victory would have too few practical consequences to meet the expectations it would surely arouse — were to take the statesmanlike road and work out acceptable language with the Americans. Improbable, to be sure. But before dismissing such an outcome as wishful fantasy, consider how powerfully it might serve as the long-sought game changer.
Can such a resolution be imagined?
That is exactly what several veteran students of these matters have recently proposed.
On June 24, The New York Times published an opinion editorial by Yossi Alpher, Colette Avital, Shlomo Gazit and Mark Heller. They put forward the same question that some of us have been asking ever since the U.N. recognition idea gained currency: “Why not offer the Palestinians what they want, but add elements that could render the resolution acceptable to a majority of Israelis?” They go on to list the components of such an agreement, which, though not intended to resolve all the outstanding elements of the conflict, transform the context of the conflict. And very soon after their essay, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also urged that the Security Council endorse a resolution reading: “This body reaffirms that the area of historic Palestine should be divided into two homes for two peoples — a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish state. The dividing line should be based on the 1967 borders — with mutually agreed border adjustments and security arrangements for both sides. This body recognizes the Palestinian state as a member of the General Assembly and urges both sides to enter into negotiations to resolve all the other outstanding issues.”
Neither of these two proposals purports to resolve all the issues, and there is surely no guarantee that post-recognition negotiations will prove more productive than past negotiations have. But reference to that part of U.N. Resolution 181, the Partition Plan of 1947 which calls for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, that invites the Palestinians to U.N. membership and simultaneously acknowledges Israel’s legitimate security concerns changes more than just the mood. It recapitulates the international community’s endorsement of a Jewish state and rests the creation of a Palestinian state on that recapitulation, hence giving the Palestinians a quiet chance to rectify the Arab rejectionist error of 1947. It thereby creates a new and more promising status quo.
The Israeli government has said that it will pull out all stops in order to defeat the proposed Palestinian resolution. It has issued an “All hands on deck” call, canceling all foreign office vacations during September, requiring its personnel around the world to make this battle their top priority. At the same time, it has acknowledged that it cannot prevail in the General Assembly. There, it seeks to create what it calls a “moral minority,” a phalanx of Western democracies united in their opposition to the admission of Palestine into anything like member status.
Until there is an actual resolution to consider, with specific wording, it is impossible to weigh its benefits and its dangers, and it is foolish to condemn it reflexively. Ought not the United States, rather than once again pressing to resume negotiations almost certain to prove sterile, put its effort into trying to help shape a constructive U.N. resolution?