The Palestinians Are Nothing If Not Frustrated
In 1998 the then Defense Minister Ehud
Barak was asked by the journalist Gideon Levy what he would do if you were a
Palestinian. Barak answered that he would have joined a terrorist group and be
protesting in the streets. Barak’s answer caused quite a stir in Israel, but it
does represent the deep but unspoken identification with Palestinian
frustration. And Israelis apparently never held it against him because Barak
beat Netanyahu in the elections of 1999.
Even the most persistent defender of
Israel, and I count myself among them, must sympathize with Palestinian
frustrations and the extent to which they have been blocked at every legitimate
avenue. Who can blame them for looking to the U.N ( Palestinians go to the UN) for some sort of
recognition and approval? If Ehud Barak’s identification with the Palestinian
cause is so strong that he would have joined a terrorist group, surely he
appreciates the effort at recognition from the United Nations. Just look at the
obstacles the Palestinians have had to overcome. I am not, mind you, excusing Palestinian
violence and political ineptitude. But if Mahmoud Abbas is to be given any
credit at all, if there’s anything at all genuine about his efforts at state
building and negotiating with the Israelis then he deserves our sympathy.
The peace process is dead and even if it
were still breathing it probably lacks the strength to sustain itself. The
peace process has not maintained Palestinian national aspirations, nor has it
significantly impeded Israeli settlements. After 25 years of trying to achieve
peace the Palestinians are besieged by frustration and failure. Seeking some
sort of “win” by going to the United Nations is a therapeutic act.
And both Israel and the United States
have been nothing but bumbling and unsuccessful at making any sort of progress
in the peace process. The UN recognition gambit is born of nothing but
frustration by the Palestinians who remain Balkanized and politically anemic.
The US has failed to mediate the conflict and cannot reconcile its support for
both Israel and the need for a two state solution. The decision to seek
recognition by the United Nations stimulated the reconciliation of the PLA and
Hamas. I wrote in an earlier post (see June 25, 2011) that this might not be
such a bad idea, and is probably inevitable, but it does complicate matters.
Hamas is a recognized terrorist organization and makes dealing with United
States and Israel even more difficult.
Moreover, the Palestinian political
situation could become even more volatile. The PLO may have once represented
the “glorious Palestinian resistance”, but to many young Palestinians
they are also the old guard who are failing to accomplish political goals.
These young Palestinians are more committed to political ideals then to
The Palestinians are seeking membership
in the UN as a state. The political question about what actually constitutes a
state is a little slippery but typically involves four conditions including a
population, a territory, governing institutions, and the ability to engage in
international relations. None of these conditions are met to the full
satisfaction of everyone but they all are probably “good enough.” Still,
the United Nations is not going to take close measurement of these four
conditions and make some sort of rational technical vote. Even though everyone
expects the Security Council to veto the Palestinian bid, it will pass easily
in the General Assembly even though it is nonbinding. The United States will
veto the Palestinian bid in the Security Council and once again maintain its
support of Israel while voting against its interests with respect to solving
the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
The consequences for Israel are surely
negative. Israel will once again be criticized and delegitimized and be on the
losing end of the General Assembly vote. In fact, it will be a wipeout as most
countries in the world will support the recognition of the Palestinians as a
state. The Palestinian bid will define itself as having borders along 1967
borders, establish increased legitimacy for its weak political institutions,
and make all sorts of UN resources available to the newly recognized state.
There have been agreements on none of these issues between Palestine and Israel
and the tension between the two will be exacerbated rather than diminished. It
is true that the Palestinian recognition by the UN will be symbolic, but that
does not mean unimportant.
The consequences of this international
political move by the Palestinians remain unclear. It involves some serious
risks that include increased confrontation with Israel, the United States, and
the failure of the peace process. But one thing is clear – Palestinian
The Changing Discourse on the Status of Jerusalem
When there is
a permanent status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians it is very
unlikely that one side will live under the sovereignty of the other in
Jerusalem. The discourse about Jerusalem has been changing and for the worse
because it is slipping into a religious issue rather than one of territorial
agreement. There is little doubt that Jerusalem is a volatile matter that
divides the Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, no end of conflict or final
status agreement is going to exclude one side from claiming Jerusalem as its
capital. As of now, Jerusalem and its symbolic value is making the conflict
more difficult to grapple with and pushing the two sides even further apart.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
increased their presence in the neighborhoods around Jerusalem. There are more
settlers in places like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah than ever before. The number
of these settlers has been growing and they are fast approaching a critical
mass that will make them difficult to extract. They will probably have to be
removed from their neighborhoods and that means violence. Their presence and the
willingness of the Israeli government to tolerate them is simply raising the
price Israel will have to pay for a final settlement.
settlers and new Israeli neighborhoods pop up borders and dividing lines become
more difficult to identify. Some of these new neighborhoods have been built on
contested land and supported with private money. They are not likely to be
included in a final settlement and will make discussion of boundaries even more
difficult. The longer it takes to develop a two state solution the more complex
and convoluted the situation becomes. With the current pace of new
neighborhoods and arguments over geography, the situation on the ground in
Jerusalem will be so Balkanized that a solution will be impossible.
drips with significance, symbolism, and identity. An agreement that completely
satisfies both sides seems unattainable; hence, both sides must negotiate and
try to find a satisfactory agreement. The most common suggestions are:
- a special joint arrangement –
with neither side declaring sovereignty – that has the two sides sharing the
city. Religious, historical, and cultural sites would be under the purview of
an international community charged with guaranteeing the safety and integrity
of the sites. Freedom of worship would be guaranteed. This is essentially a
compromise based on “sharing” Jerusalem with international
involvement. Such an agreement seems “sensible” and
“rational” but it undercuts the strength of the identity relationship
that Palestinians and Israelis ascribed to Jerusalem. Many Israelis could not
stomach the thought that Jerusalem in its full sense was not their sovereign capital
and homeland. The same is true for Palestinians.
- a geographic division of the city
whereby Israel controls and has sovereignty over its neighborhoods and
Palestinians have control over theirs. This would require serious and difficult
negotiation the results of which would be that every inch of land would have to
be measured and parsed into either Israeli or Palestinian categories. The
success of such negotiations seems doubtful. This solution does satisfy the
sovereignty question, but only to a limited extent. Each side would have full
control (both political and administrative) over its own areas, but whether or
not this is satisfactory depends on the acceptability of the geographic
- the city is recognized as the
capital of both Israel and Palestine and the two sides share political and
administrative control. This is a desirable solution but one that requires the
sort of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians that they are now not
Jerusalem as a sacred holy place rather than a negotiable geographic area makes
the discourse about Jerusalem more rigid and less susceptible to influence.
Moreover, it’s easy to talk about land swaps or exchanges, but such discussions
about geographical divisions must be of comparative value. The entire
definition of “what is Jerusalem” remains contested. Land currently
on the outskirts of what is considered Jerusalem could simply be annexed and
defined as Jerusalem. But the matter of comparative value will rear its head.
The Holy Basin (Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif) is certainly “worth”
more than any other neighborhood Jerusalem.
Earlier in the
history of the discourse around Jerusalem, Israel could have ceded East
Jerusalem to the Palestinians and allowed them to establish a capital. But
there has been recent settlement activity in East Jerusalem creating new facts
on the ground and making things more complicated. After annexing East Jerusalem
in 1967, Israel declared Jerusalem as its eternal capital. The Palestinians –
along with a few UN resolutions – do not recognize this declaration. Herein lays
the starting point for conflict resolution.
Can Israel be a Jewish State and Not Discriminate Against the Arab Minority
The word on
the street in Israel is that Palestinians don’t have much problem with Israel
being a “Jewish state” but they do have problems with the Zionist
enterprise. Of course, they won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state just yet
and refuse to recognize its existence as such. This is some sort of symbolic
denial of Israel and silly in many ways because the partition in 1947 was
designed to create a Jewish state. The whole idea of Israel doesn’t make much
sense if it’s not Jewish. And some day in the distant future when and if there
is truly an end of conflict Israel will be known as a “Jewish state.”
is heavily driven by the Arab refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
And even though many Palestinians have more problems with Zionism than Judaism,
they use the denial of Israel as a Jewish state strategically to argue for the
rights of Arab citizens. By denying the Jewish nature of the state they leave
the door open for a Palestinian population that will continue to burrow into
the state of Israel. Palestinians have a strong argument in human rights. About
20% of the population of Israel is Arab and they cannot be denied basic human
debate emerges, however, by posing the question as to whether or not Israel
being a “Jewish state” automatically means discrimination against
others. Can Israel be a Jewish state and not discriminate against the Arab
minority? Well, probably not in the purest sense. Activist Palestinians use
this point quite regularly; that is, they make the argument that if Israel is
Jewish it will mean discrimination against its minority citizens. There are two
problems and inconsistencies here.
does “discrimination” mean? That will depend on how Jewish the state
is. If it is an Orthodox Torah state then discrimination will be considerable
against everybody. But let’s assume Israel becomes a “reasonable”
Jewish state that recognizes Jewish history and culture but still makes the distinction
between the public and private sphere. In other words, anyone will be able to
practice their own religion and culture within the private confines of their
own home. The state will make certain accommodations for Judaism such as rules
of kashrut, the Sabbath, the calendar, cultural touch points such as street
names, religious holidays, education, and the like. The United States certainly
is not a Christian state but Christian influences are pervasive. School
calendars, government offices, and institutional life all respond to Christian
traditions. As a Jewish state, public schools in Israel will teach some Jewish
history and Zionism. But the matter of private schools and whether or not it
will be possible to avoid the state religion will be debatable. There is a
distinction between discrimination and differences. Just because two groups are
different does not mean one is discriminated against.
It is also
curious that this problem emerges with respect to the Jewish state of Israel
with little or no mention of other religious states. This is an easy point to
make: a number of countries contain the name of the religion in the name of the
country such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan. Turkey is increasingly an Islamic country even with its secular
military tradition. Jordan’s constitution says that no one can be king who is
not Muslim and this includes converts. All of these countries have minorities,
and to be sure they’re not treated very well, but these countries also come
from different political and cultural histories. They do not have Israel’s
history of democracy and equal rights, a history that should serve them well as
Israel works out these issues.
countries with more democratic traditions such as Denmark, Norway, in England
also have institutionalized religious identities. The Queen of England is the
guardian of Anglican Christianity. The Danes and Norwegians are all part of an
official Church of Denmark and Norway and these are countries that do not
receive the brunt of the world’s criticism.
The problem of Israel being a “Jewish”
state is really very minor. It is true that the legal aspects of certain
minority rights have yet to be argued through, but these problems should not be
insurmountable. And although conservatives in Israel are increasingly trying to
limit civil rights in an effort to ensure the Jewish nature of the state
through legislation, Israel still has no religious test to hold major office
and the Israeli Supreme Court has a strong tradition of guaranteeing human
rights. I understand that some have fundamental objections to any state with an
official religion, but this is a challenge for another time.
The UN’s Declaration of a Palestinian State Is a Bad Idea. Here’s Why
The word is that the Palestinian Authority with the help of the UN General Assembly will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state next September. Such a declaration is not new. A statement of Palestinian independence has been endorsed by the majority of the General Assembly and received the support of many countries throughout the world. The Palestinians will do this through a United Nations legislative procedure called “uniting for peace.” Briefly, uniting for peace is a procedural rule that allows the General Assembly to maintain peace when the Security Council fails to do so. A single vote on the Security Council can prevent the passage of legislation or recommendations and this is often frustrating to the General Assembly. Hence, in the 1950s the General Assembly approved a procedure that allowed them to consider a matter when there was a threat to peace. Consequently, they can “unite for peace” and take necessary action. A brief video explanation helps explain the issue.
This procedure has been used a number of times (Korean War, 1950; Suez crisis, 1956; Afghanistan, 1980) just to name a few and has been used before with respect to Middle East issues. The circumstances of each case are of course different with some more justified than others, but the Palestinian attempt to use the procedure to declare a state is certainly a unique application. If the resolution passes the General Assembly, and it will quite easily, it will have only recommendatory powers, and would not be binding. It would not have the power to alter the legal status of the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Then why is this a bad idea?
First, UN resolution 242 and 338 require the parties themselves to reach agreement and recognize boundaries. This is a key issue in successful negotiations. A durable and stable peace will only emerge as a result of genuine negotiations and conclusions which are authentically satisfying to each party. The basis of the entire peace process is in jeopardy by voiding resolution 242 and forcing a state declaration from the outside. Twenty years of discussions and agreements between the parties will be undermined. One might suggest that 20 years of failure is just the reason for the declaration but that would be too simplistic of a conclusion. Many of the documents, agreements, studies, and memoranda developed between the Israelis and the Palestinians are necessary for continuing negotiations.
Second, if resolutions 242 and 338 become so easy to bypass than this has consequences for future negotiations between Israel and other states in the region such as Syria and Lebanon. The Security Council will lose credibility and their resolutions will be considered voidable. Every country that has been involved in negotiations – Egypt, Jordan, the US, Russia – will be undermined. Why would any state commit time and resources when a UN resolution could render them unreliable?
Highly contested areas like Jerusalem will remain in legal and national limbo. Israel has been prevented from establishing Jerusalem, for example, as its capital. They have been thwarted at every turn in preventing embassies and diplomatic missions from locating in Jerusalem. Now, just like that, the Palestinians can declare Jerusalem as their capital? All sorts of territory, including Jerusalem, has been the subject of commitments and agreements. How is it that all of these discussions can now simply dissipate and assume that a United Nations declaration has solved the problem.
Third, how does such a resolution from the General Assembly do anything but inflame problems with respect to the status of refugees and the right of return? It is well known that resolution 242 requires a “just” solution to the refugee problem. A solution can only be just if it is accepted by the competing parties, not imposed on them. The refugee problem has implications for Jordan as well as Israel and Palestine and it seems as though they are being ignored here.
Fourth, the Oslo Accords were some of the most specific to manage temporary arrangements between Israel and Palestine. These accords call for a negotiated solution to problems relating to refugees, settlements, security, borders, and holy sites. The key term here is negotiated. The peace process is highly dependent on negotiated agreements; in other words, agreements whose outcomes are based on mutual consent and joint agreement. A General Assembly resolution, of which there are dozens of them condemning Israel, is of very limited credibility to the Israelis and will carry little weight.
Finally, it isn’t even clear what will be included in the declaration. Does the declaration of the Palestinian state include Gaza and Hamas? This is troublesome and not even acceptable to the Palestinian Authority let alone to Israel. It seems increasingly apparent that the UN move is designed to garner sympathy and increase international recognition of the Palestinian Authority.
We should keep in mind, however, that under certain conditions the declaration of a Palestinian state will be welcome. Many feel as if the Palestinians truly want to delegitimize and destroy Israel, but if they are willing to declare a state on what is about 20% of what might be considered original Palestinian territory (depending on whose maps you are using) then shouldn’t we consider this good news. The establishment and development of a Palestinian state as currently defined by its relationship with Israel in fact recognizes and legitimizes Israel. But still, many in the foreign-policy business hold firm in their demands that the parties settle their differences, not the United Nations. Palestinian leaders should think carefully about how to proceed on this matter. They have little to gain from symbolic international stunts, but much to gain from the outcome of thorough negotiations.