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.
In a conversation over breakfast in New York, where he was touting his ideas in early August, Ayalon focused mostly on the settlers. He calls them Israeli “heroes”: By putting their lives on the line and going where various Israeli governments sent them on the other side of the 1967 lines, they helped force the Arab world to recognize Israel within the 1967 lines. Now he thinks their job is done, and Israel should start the process of helping them come home: setting up a massive resettlement fund, planning new neighborhoods in Israel proper, creating jobs — all the things that weren’t done for the settlers evacuated from Gaza in 2005.
By starting the process of evacuating the areas beyond the de facto border created by the security fence, he says, Israel will show its serious intention to reach a genuine two-state peace. By keeping its soldiers in place until a deal is signed, it shows its determination that the peace must be genuine.
To be honest, I don’t see how this Israeli government is likely to start a unilateral process of evacuating settlers while it’s hard at work expanding the settlements. Ayalon doesn’t seem to have an answer to that one. He approaches the issues as a strategist, not a politician. Before he was a spymaster he was a career soldier, rising through the naval commandos to chief of the Israeli navy. He now teaches counter-terrorism strategy at the University of Haifa. His approach to winning over the political arena seems to be saying what he thinks and hoping for the best.
It seems equally unlikely that the Obama administration will take a politically risky step like endorsing a Palestinian U.N. bid between now and September 27, when Abbas is scheduled to address the General Assembly. It’s conceivable that it could do so after the November 6 election. Some pro-Israel conservatives suspect Obama is waiting to do just that. There’s a group within the Palestinian leadership that favors delaying the actual General Assembly vote on their bid until November, in hopes that Obama will then be free to act. The Palestinians who work most closely with the Americans seem to think there’s no chance of that happening..
Even if the administration were considering such a move, holding out until November wouldn’t allow them to participate in the drafting of the resolution. Getting it to say what it must in order to do some good would require a lot of arm twisting and table pounding, and that sort of thing couldn’t be kept secret.
On the other hand, somebody else could play that role. Somebody like Britain, for example. The Brits have credibility with Israelis and Palestinians alike, excellent ties with Washington and a permanent seat on the Security Council. The Conservative government of David Cameron also has forged good ties with the Romney campaign and could begin laying the groundwork there in the event that the Republican wins in November. Looking back at the history of the region over the past century, one could reasonably argue that they got us into this mess, and now is their chance to get us out of it.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).