The Palestinians will be going to the United Nations this September to seek recognition of statehood. Despite the desire of Israel and the United States to avert what many are describing as a disastrous move, a U.N. vote now looks inevitable. As Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, recently put it, “We have exhausted all opportunities so we have to go to the U.N.”
What does this all mean? How will this push by the Palestinians affect the region? Is it a good or bad strategy for the Palestinians? Will it change daily life in Ramallah? What about in Tel Aviv? Were the Palestinians really left with no option but unilateralism? And what should President Obama do in response?
The Forward and the Guardian, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, brought together two experts, Hussein Ibish and Yossi Klein Halevi, to take part in an online Q&A to help answer some of these questions. Today, they responded to our readers in real time, debating the value of this move, and explaining what appears to be a game-changer in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While the live conversation with these policy experts has ended, you still can join the conversation by posting your thoughts in the comments section below.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a frequent contributor to national newspapers and magazines, and the author of “What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.”
Yossi Klein Halevi is an Israeli writer who is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Israel correspondent for The New Republic, and his most recent book was “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”
Forward reader Lucy asks:
What real harm is there in recognizing the national aspirations of our neighbors? Skip the symbolism, the desire for reciprocity, and just answer specifically: How would Palestinian recognition render Israel’s borders any (more or) less defensible? Its military any (more or) less dominant? Its settlements policy any (less or) more divisive? Its economy any (more or) less vital? Its people any (more or) less secure? And its status in the world community of nations any (less or) more isolated?
The question I think you’re asking is: Should Israel recognize the Palestinian UN initiative? I think not — because this is about circumventing negotiations and rendering Israeli security needs irrelevant. What the international community is saying here is that it’s more important to create Arab state number 23 and Muslim state number 58 than it is to ensure the security needs, perhaps the long-term viability, of the lone Jewish state. That is an expression of contempt for Israel.
Nor is the UN — which routinely condemns Israel more than all other countries combined — a suitable venue for trying to heal the conflict.
We’ve come a very long away from the old Israeli position opposing a two-state solution. Every major party — including, now, the Likud — has accepted the principle of a two-state solution. We have few red lines left. One of those must be that this conflict can only be resolved through negotiations.
Forward reader Ilan asks:
What is your take on the recent statements that “Palestine should be free of Jews”? Obviously it would be unrealistic for settlers to stay in a Palestinian state but the tone of this statement is just bad. As a (Jewish) supporter of the two-state solution, it makes my job that much harder.
Palestinian leaders have repeatedly said that “Israeli settlers” cannot remain in Palestine as settlers. This does not mean that Palestine will be free of Jews. However, clearly they cannot continue to be “settlers,” that is to say Israelis living in Palestine under Israeli law and under the jurisdiction of the Israeli state. Extra territorial jurisdiction for Israel over the Jews and Israelis living in an independent, sovereign Palestine negates the sovereignty and independence of that Palestinian state. But the principle that Jews must be welcome in a Palestinian state is an important value for the Palestinians themselves.
I would point out the following examples that demonstrate some of the numerous instances in which Palestinian officials have agreed to this principle:
In 2009 the then chief Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurei, told his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, that Jews would be free to live under Palestinian rule. Palestinian prime minister: Jews would be welcome in future state.
One final note: I’m not sure any Israeli government would actually agree to leave Jewish Israelis inside a Palestinian state because I doubt they would want the responsibility for the political pressure for protecting them if they came into conflict or other difficulties with their Palestinian neighbors in the context of Palestinian sovereignty.
Guardian reader Atif asks:
Israel already routinely flouts international law and UN resolutions, while the United States continually provides it with a veto at the Security Council. What difference will ‘observer status’ (which is what will be achieved because the US will veto full membership) make beyond the symbolism?
My view is that this would be a disastrous, self-defeating response and take what might be a diplomatically difficult situation at the UN and turn it into a combustible and potentially disastrous and unmanageable situation for all parties on the ground. The most appealing thing about being a nonmember state to Palestinians is that historically, apart from the Vatican, there have been 16 such observers at the UN. If you account for the unification of Germany and Vietnam, all 16 are now full UN members. So in that sense, such an upgrade is very appealing to any people aspiring to full UN membership. However, a symbolic victory with little practical benefits and enormous costs needs to be very carefully considered in terms of its long-term value to the national interest.
Guardian reader Sacred Screed asks:
Israeli officials have claimed that the Palestinians should engage in further talks in order to determine the outlook of a Palestinian state. But what is wrong with Palestinians looking to the international community for multilateral talks and multilateral recognition? Surely this is the right and proper thing for any country to do when seeking to join the United Nations?
For Israelis, the crucial question is what is the goal of the Palestinian national movement. Is it to create a state that will live in peace with its neighbor, Israel? Or does it see a state in the West Bank and Gaza as a first step to the gradual unraveling of the Jewish state – perhaps through demographic means, via “right of return”? Read the Palestinian media – Fatah as well as Hamas – and the answer is the latter.
Most Israelis don’t believe that the Palestinian national movement seeks a permanent two-state solution. The international community, by and large, has not taken those fears seriously. And in unilaterally seeking to impose a solution to the conflict, the UN would allow the Palestinian leadership to by-pass negotiations that would offer Israel the kind of security guarantees on which its long-term viability could depend.
Guardian reader gucchipiggy asks:
Is there an argument that a US veto is actually the desired outcome for Palestinians (if not the PA)? My sense is that large scale civil unrest may be the results- perhaps across the Arab world- and that this would be the best possible method of focusing world attention on solving this issue urgently. The PA might well get swept away in the process, but I doubt anyone apart from Israel and Ramallah’s finer restaurants will weep at that prospect.
As for another Palestinian uprising, I think it is extremely unlikely that even if it began in a nonviolent manner it would remain nonviolent because Israeli occupation forces are exercising a system of discipline and control over a subjugated population and would quickly resort to force against large crowds even if they were nonviolent. And, of course, there are many extreme Palestinian groups that would seize on the opportunity to resume conflict. I think that is the very definition of a lose-lose scenario, and I think every step should be taken to avoid it. The most important aspect of doing so is to continue US and international funding to the PA to support Palestinian economic development, institution-building and security cooperation on the ground. I think we should all focus most of our attention on the day-after scenarios rather than whatever happens in New York, because what happens on the ground is much more likely to affect the future for Palestinians and Israelis alike than pieces of paper issued in Turtle Bay.
Guardian reader figs123 asks:
Do you believe the vote for recognition at the UN is targeted to improve the PA’s strength at the table in negotiations with Israel or an attempt to further legitimize the Palestinian authority as the Palestinian representatives (as opposed to Hamas in Gaza)?
Forward reader Adam asks:
Where does the UN move leave Fayyadism and the largely successful institution building initiatives? And where are the opportunities to continue to empower this movement?
The PA is already suffering a financial crisis due to a failure of some countries, especially Arab states, to fulfill their pledges for 2011. Salaries have been cut in half at least once, and may be so again. An austerity regime is being considered to deal with the crisis.
Maintaining calm, hope and a positive outlook among the population in the West Bank requires continued institution-building and for the PA to be able to meet payroll upon which more than one million Palestinians are directly dependent. This means funding not only should not be cut, it should be increased.
This is also essential to maintaining the all-important security cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces that has restored law and order, curbed terrorism, provided the basis for investment and economic development and is, after all, the sine qua non of governance.
Any talk in Congress or by Israeli officials of “punishing” the Palestinians for whatever they do in the UN by cutting off their funds or, in the case of Israel, withholding their tax revenues, is at least as dangerous for Israel and the United States as it is for the Palestinians. It is imperative that the institution-building program not only continue but expand, as at the moment, it is the main vehicle for hope, progress and momentum towards realizing a two-state solution.
Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland asks:
Gentlemen, having followed the writings of both of you keenly:
Which circumstance is more likely to lead to Palestinian frustration, perhaps escalating into violence: a resounding yes from the UN, which then fuels high expectations of on-the-ground change that are subsequently not met - or a large and influential no vote at the UN, which feeds a sense of disappointment with politics and diplomacy and strengthens those who say only ‘armed resistance’ works?
Therefore, continued funding for the PA, the UN and other international institutions that support the quality of life among Palestinians is essential to avoiding not only frustration but despair. My opinion is that this is by far the most important question facing us at the moment, and that all responsible parties should push for continued and indeed increased funding for all these organizations that provide a more decent life and a sense of hope to the Palestinian people.
Forward reader Dan Judelson asks:
How can Israeli security be realized WITHOUT the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel?
The question, then, is how to create a Palestinian state that will help us solve one existential threat without creating a new existential threat. I am frankly maddened by both the Jewish left and right, each of which picks its favorite existential threat that supports its position and ignores the other existential threat that challenges its position. Left and right are guilty of the same sin (and since this is season of penitence before Rosh Hashana, it’s not out of line to speak of sin): selective vision, which trivializes the severity of the Israeli predicament. I know of no other country that faces the agonizing dilemmas that we do, where either choice can lead to our unraveling.
I would have been much happier with your question had it read something like this: How can Israeli security be realized WITHOUT a Palestinian state? And how can it be realized WITH a Palestinian state?
Forward reader Lolo asks:
The veto is sure to enflame Arab frustrations with US policy. What kind of damage control will the US attempt in the wake of its veto?
Arabs have frequently perceive the United States as being interested only in two things in the Middle East: oil and Israel. As a consequence, the United States has been seen as a quintessentially status quo power in the region, opposed almost all political changes and preferring to deal with Arab dictators and autocrats and against Arab democracy and human rights. It’s been much harder to make that case in recent months given US actions in Egypt, Libya and Syria. But strong US opposition to Palestinian moves for greater recognition in the UN could undo all the undermining of that traditional narrative and restore the idea that the United States simply doesn’t care about the basic human rights of Arabs. I’m not sure what kind of damage control to prevent that if the situation is as stark as it could be in the event of a fully-fledged confrontation, followed by self-defeating punitive measures such as cutting off of funds to the PA.
Guardian reader Jenn M asks:
Does the ‘Arab spring’ frighten Israel, or, on the contrary, does it give hope that the Arab people are seeking to transform their countries into working democracies, as opposed to dictatorships, kingdoms, or theocracies, and does a Palestine state in this context carry the promise of a new, more open and free-thinking Middle East?
A Palestinian state, being built on a foundation that lacks existing entrenched ruling elites, secret police and other instruments of repression, could certainly be among the most democratic and pluralistic of Arab societies, as the American Task Force on Palestine has been advocating for many years. Of course, regional unrest has played into the rhetoric of Prime Minister Netanyahu who tends to privilege security above all other values, including peace. However, true security can only come from a condition of peace. All other forms of security are temporary, contingent and ultimately illusory. Peace and reform are the twin pillars for a better Arab world and a better Middle East, and both Arab reform and democracy and peace between Israel and the Palestinians are mutually reinforcing and complementary values that should be pursued simultaneously and along parallel tracks.
I’ll try to answer for myself, rather than for Israel. I’m deeply frightened by the potential consequences of the Arab Spring in the short term, and immensely hopeful in the long term.
Short term: In the last year we’ve seen the unraveling of whatever alliances/ tacit alliances we’ve had in the region – Turkey, our most important ally, is now threatening to send warships against us; when the Cairo mob ransacked the Israeli embassy, Egyptian leaders refused to take frantic Israeli calls, and sent in the commandos to rescue besieged embassy staff only after the US intervened. And we haven’t even mentioned the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. So short term? Catastrophe wouldn’t be too strong a word.
Long term: The Arab Spring could be – could be (note the Israeli caution even when trying to be optimistic) – the beginning of an essential process that would allow Arab countries to join the globalizing world, both socially and economically. In a Middle East that examines itself and doesn’t look to blame outsiders for its failures, Israel could find itself finally at home. And my own vision for Israel is that we “return” to the Middle East – our homecoming will not be complete until we are no longer in “exile” from our neighbors.
In that sense, a Palestinian state, founded under the right conditions, could be a crucial part of our homecoming. We need to send the message to the Palestinians and the Arab world generally that we don’t want to occupy another people, that we didn’t come home to deny another people its sense of home, and that our only justification for continuing to remain in the territories is that we view that condition as temporary, until it is safe enough for us to pull out. Tragically, for us as well as for the Palestinians, I don’t believe we are anywhere near that time. And so in the interim I would want my government to announce an unconditional and open-ended settlement freeze, that would send the message that we view the occupation as a temporary security necessity,not as a permanent historical claim. But you didn’t ask me about that.