The Middle East crisis returned this week to its place of birth in New York City. The United Nations statehood resolution by the Palestinians is dangerous, impractical and possibly the only way to create a secure life for Israel and its neighbours.
Using a UN General Assembly resolution to make an end run around potential negotiations and create a Palestinian state is not a new idea, of course. It’s exactly what was done in 1947, under strikingly similar circumstances, and the resulting Palestinian state became known as Israel. That experience taught us a lot about the hazards of statehood by declaration from above – and about its occasional necessity.
The creation of a Jewish homeland was one of the first acts of a UN that had just been formed in the face of the unprecedented genocidal atrocity and refugee crisis that made Israel’s birth a tragic necessity. It was done at the General Assembly, without the approval of the Security Council, with a sense of urgency.
We should beware of precedent. Resolution 181 of 1947, let us not forget, seemed like a fairly simple matter but ended up producing more than 60 years of trouble. It was meant to create one multiethnic nation with two internal states, one Jewish majority and one Arab majority – a “partition with economic union,” to borrow its subtitle.
That plan was ruined within days, as Arab nationalists launched a war on the embryonic Israel, and radical Jewish nationalists pushed Arabs out of their homes and into the dwindling bits of Arab-designated territory.
And so it stood, a refugee crisis begat by a refugee crisis, for decades. From 1993 onward, when the Palestinians first recognized Israel, the path to resolution has been largely agreed on by all parties, defined by a 1967 UN resolution: Using the ceasefire borders of the Six-Day War as a starting point, Israel will cease settlements on the Palestinian side, the Palestinians will recognize Israel’s sovereignty and renounce violence, and a border will be worked out.
That plan has come tantalizingly close to fruition twice in the past 15 years, scuppered largely by Israeli domestic politics. So there are risks in the decision by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to sidestep that plan – or, more optimistically, to nudge it along – by asking the world’s leaders to recognize the Palestinian proto-state. His declaration could trigger a border war or attacks against the half a million Israeli settlers on Palestinian lands or the 1.3 million Arab citizens of Israel.
But it may be the best way to a more secure and prosperous life for both Israel and its Arab neighbours. On the Palestinian side, it could have the considerable advantage of marginalizing and effectively ending the relevance of Hamas, the extremist party that has ruled the rump territory of Gaza since 2007. Hamas leaders, who are deeply opposed to a two-state solution, are sputtering with outrage at Mr. Abbas, whose humiliations at the negotiating table were the source of Hamas’s power. But this is the sort of symbolic victory on the world stage that Hamas could never deliver, and a statehood-bound Palestine vanquishes them to a dim past.
Israelis also recognize that a clearly defined Palestinian state is the only way they’ll be able to turn their country’s extraordinary economic, educational, technological and cultural resources into the basis for a secure life and a prosperous region. The Jerusalem Post found this week that 69 per cent of Israelis feel strongly that Israel should accept the statehood declaration if the UN passes it.
They understand something that their government apparently doesn’t. It’s something that was best expressed 21 years ago by the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, one of the sharpest scholars of Israeli-Palestinian politics. In an even darker moment, when all-out war in the region seemed likely, he suggested that perhaps a fully agreed-on peace settlement shouldn’t be the immediate goal, but rather just a tentative declaration of statehood.
“It would perhaps help if everybody would stop thinking about a definitive settlement,” he wrote, suggesting, instead, a provisional two-state beginning, “subject to periodic rethinking and negotiation.” It would be ugly, but it would achieve the most important thing for Israel.
“Israel’s very life depends on making peace with the Palestinians,” he said, “and thus opening the door to the Arab world as a whole. For its own sake, and for the sake of the world, Israel must soon join in helping the people in the entire region to achieve more decent lives.” That is even more true in today’s fast-changing Middle East.