As more and more South American countries–Chile is the latest–proclaim their recognition of a Palestinian state, the clamor grows in Jerusalem to declare a major failure of Israeli diplomacy. Didn’t Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman travel to Latin America some months ago to stem the tide of recognition? Didn’t Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu telephone the president of Chile just last week to persuade him not to join the Palestine bandwagon? And if Latin America goes, won’t Europe be next and then, god forbid, the United States?
This is not the first time the Palestinians seek international recognition of a non-existent state. Several decades ago, long before Oslo, there was a global wave of diplomatic recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. PLO legations were set up in European capitals. Official Israel was horrified; the PLO at that time was still linked to terrorism, and the European move was seen, not without reason, as a form of appeasement. But the only substantive outcome was a gradual moderation of PLO positions.
This led to another global wave of recognition after the PLO declared Palestinian statehood in 1988. Again, little of substance emerged from this maneuver. Many who recall it are particularly wary of the outcome of the current Palestinian diplomatic campaign.
This time, however, may be different. The Netanyahu government’s apprehension is palpable, presumably because unlike in earlier instances, four circumstances are very different. For the first time, a Palestinian diplomatic achievement is being registered against a backdrop of growing isolation and de-legitimization of Israel. Perhaps more important, for the first time the Palestinians are successfully putting in place the actual infrastructure of a state, even if only in the West Bank, as part of an integrated strategy of state-building and recognition. Then too, for the first time all sides ostensibly agree that there should be a Palestinian state. Lest we forget, neither Israel nor the United States endorsed a two-state solution until recently. Finally, the world is increasingly aware, more than 15 years after Oslo, that neither Israel nor the PLO is politically capable of negotiating the modalities of a two-state solution and enforcing it.
Hence the growing attraction of the current Palestinian scheme: international recognition is designed to lead not to a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence but to creation of a state within the 1967 lines by the United Nations. It looks increasingly like this is going to happen, particularly in view of the ongoing failure of the current peace "non-process" and the Obama administration’s growing frustration with Netanyahu. With or without an American veto, Israel could emerge from this exercise far more isolated than it already is. What should it do?
Instead of wringing its hands and complaining to the world, Israel should stop, take a deep breath, and sit down with its American partner and ally to assess ways in which the Palestinian initiative can be leveraged for the benefit of both Israel and a two-state solution. The most positive aspect of the initiative from Israel’s standpoint is that it is confined to defining a territorial state within the 1967 lines. It doesn’t deal with the right of return or Temple Mount issues, which are automatic deal-breakers in direct bilateral talks because the Palestinian position threatens Israel at the existential level. Israel can contemplate the UN turning its conflict with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with its heavy representation of 1948 refugees, into a more manageable state-to-state conflict. Israel will hitherto negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas as president of Palestine, not chairman of the PLO. This could be a significant transformation.
Israel and the US can discuss acceptable language for a UN resolution that recognizes the need for territorial swaps and special arrangements for settlements, along with Israel’s special security requirements, as issues to be negotiated between the two states. The modalities of placing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem can also be accommodated, with international recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital stated explicitly for the first time. Jerusalem and Washington can insist that the UN resolution draw its inspiration from General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which explicitly recognized a "Jewish state". Together, they can design wording that anticipates the demands upon Israel of international law once a Palestinian state has been recognized by the UN. And Israel can leverage its willingness to contemplate such a UN resolution into security reassurances from Washington and normalization concessions from the Arab League.
All this could conceivably be feasible, if Israel stops fighting the Palestinian internationalization drive and starts exploiting it for its own benefit. All this, if Netanyahu is really serious about creating a Palestinian state so Israel can preserve its Jewish identity and integrity.
Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu and his government are blatantly incapable of sustaining such a move. The initiative must come from Washington. And for that to happen, the US has to seriously reassess its current failed peace policy.