Palestinian Labor Pains
The vote in the United Nations to grant the Palestinians nonmember observer status was certainly as expected. Those supporting the move were overwhelming with 138 countries voting in favor, 9 against, and 41 abstentions. The vote was testimony to the international public relations campaign that has evolved over the decades to establish the Palestinians as a political and legal entity. But I do not mean that cynically. There is no simple state agency or decision-making mechanism that determines precisely when a collection of people have cohered enough to be considered a particular ethnopolitically identified group. There are rules of thumb and good practices such as a history of cultural continuity, recognizable borders, established political institutions, and a desire for statehood, but conclusions about when these things have been sufficiently achieved remain at least somewhat subjective. That’s why there’s always a little bit of “persuasion” or as I referred to it above “public relations” involved in convincing the world that official recognition is justified.
In earlier posts on this blog (April 17, June 5, September 19, and September 25) I argued against the Palestinian effort to achieve recognition by the United Nations. See those posts for details, but I essentially signed on to a series of disadvantages such as (1) making it more difficult to negotiate with Israel, (2) damaging or even voiding the Oslo accords, (3) confusing security arrangements, (4) failing to make progress on unity between Hamas and the PLA, (5) annoying Israel and the United States who oppose UN recognition, and others.
Yet, it is pretty difficult to be in favor of the two-state solution and be overly critical of this latest development. In one sense, Netanyahu got what was coming to him. He has been sufficiently difficult and intransient such that the Palestinians were forced to entertain alternatives. Part of the hue and cry by supporters of Israel is little more than the painful recognition that a Palestinian state, in the real sense of the term, might actually happen. The phrase “two-state solution” has become a cliché, a shibboleth that rolls easily off the tongue but doesn’t really taste very good.
I would still argue that the best solution is for direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But I have softened my position a little and believe that the new United Nations status for Palestinians might be early labor pains that will one day give birth to a state. I would reiterate that a two-state solution is best for the maintenance of Israeli identity and Israel’s democracy. No other political solution to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians guarantees the unity of the State of Israel based on Jewish particularity. Netanyahu can claim to be amenable to a Palestinian state one day all that he wants, but he is simply incapable – to use an unfortunate metaphor – of pulling the trigger. You could never convince me that a Palestinian state will be established on Netanyahu’s watch.
This is a first step and a baby step to be sure. Of course, being designated an observer state is mostly symbolic but not completely. The Palestinians will improve their international standing, call greater attention to themselves, and have an internationally legitimate body from which they can express themselves. It will also give them access to the International Criminal Court as well as participation in certain UN agencies. It is not full membership or recognition, but it is not unimportant.
Not much will change, however. Mahmoud Abbas even in his formal UN speech was graceless enough to refer to Israel as racist and colonialist. Netanyahu announced that the UN action “will not change anything on the ground.” He strongly asserted that Israel will not compromise its security and that “peace can only be achieved through negotiation between the sides…” Abbas asked the United Nations to issue Palestinians a birth certificate and that is fair enough. But the Israelis have to prepare for the new arrival by controlling settlers, negotiating in good faith, and recognizing at least certain aspects of the Palestinian narrative. The PLA must find some way to control Hamas and continue their recognition of Israel. Nothing really has changed on the ground, but the Palestinians do have a new toy.