There is only one way for the Palestinians to achieve statehood, and that is to convince a majority of Israelis that a Palestinian state would be a peaceful neighbour, and not threaten their most basic security. The farcical vote on Palestinian statehood about to be enacted at the United Nations – to upgrade the Palestinian presence to non-member observer state – will only reinforce the fear among Israelis that Palestinians intend to impose a solution that will leave Israel without peace or security.
One can understand the temptation, especially after the recent fighting between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, to endorse the Palestinians’ UN bid. Supporters of the initiative argue that the upgraded UN status would bolster the more moderate Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with Hamas.
But that argument ignores the potentially disastrous consequences of Mr. Abbas’s unilateralist diplomacy. The fear in Israel is that Mr. Abbas intends to use his new status to turn to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to charge Israel with war crimes – fulfilling a long-standing Palestinian threat. The result would be the effective criminalization of the Jewish state. As one senior Israeli official put it to me, “Every Israeli soldier, every Israeli leader, could face charges as a war criminal.”
Palestinian spokespeople insist Mr. Abbas is driven by despair. After all, they argue, Palestinians have been negotiating with Israel since 1993, to no avail.
In asserting that Israel hasn’t been a credible negotiating partner, the Palestinian leadership is depending on the world’s amnesia. Twice in the past decade, Israeli prime ministers – Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 – offered the Palestinians statehood. Had Palestinian leaders responded, there would now be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Palestinian leaders shunned a deal because that would have required one key reciprocal concession: Descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war would move to a Palestinian state, rather than to Israel. The main obstacle to an agreement, then, is not territory or West Bank settlements but the Palestinian insistence on the “right” to demographically destroy the Jewish state.
Still, Israel is hardly blameless. By continuing to build in settlements, it reinforces the Palestinian sense of powerlessness. And, ironically, settlement building deflects attention from Palestinian intransigence, encouraging the widespread myth that settlements, rather than the demand of refugee return, are the primary obstacle to peace.
The clearest message of peaceful intentions that Mr. Abbas could send to the Israeli public would be to declare from the UN podium that Palestinians have no intention of destroying the Jewish state demographically, and will confine the return of the descendants of refugees to the West Bank and Gaza. The solution, he needs to explicitly state, is two rights of return: one of Jews to the Jewish state, the other of Palestinians to Palestine.
Mr. Abbas recently took a tentative step in that direction. Asked by an Israeli reporter whether he regarded the Israeli city of Safed, from which Mr. Abbas fled as a child in the 1948 war, as part of Israel or Palestine, Mr. Abbas affirmed it was Israel. That statement held great symbolic significance: The head of the Palestinian Authority was, in the most personal way, making his peace with Israel’s existence.
Yet, predictably, following intense Palestinian criticism, Mr. Abbas tempered his statement, affirming the “sacred” right of return, implicitly including Israel. Tragically, such squandered moments have defined Mr. Abbas’s leadership.
Were Mr. Abbas to turn his statement on Safed into Palestinian policy, rejecting the dream of destroying the Jewish state from within, he would almost certainly persuade a majority of Israelis to risk a deal. According to every poll of recent years, upward of 70 per cent of Israelis support a two-state solution. Israelis know that the ongoing occupation is a disaster for Israel, undermining its moral integrity, international status and ability to maintain a democratic state with a Jewish majority.
Only a greater fear – of a neighbouring state in the West Bank that would resemble Gaza – prevents Israelis from pressing their government to end the occupation. Faced on one side of their border with a Hamas-led regime intent on terrorizing Israeli civilians, and on the other side with a Palestinian Authority advocating the right of return to Israel, it’s hardly surprising that Israelis aren’t taking to the streets, as so many once did, in support of Palestinian statehood.
Friends of the Palestinians should be pressing Mr. Abbas to allay Israeli fears. It’s time to ask Palestinian leaders some hard questions: Why have you rejected every offer for statehood – going back to the UN partition plan of 1947? And do you really expect Israeli Jews to accept a version of the “right of return” that would threaten the only state in the world in which the Jewish people is sovereign?
Arguably, no stateless people has rejected offers of statehood as often as the Palestinians. And no other national movement seeks to empower its people on the ruins of another people’s state. That is the real scandal of the Middle East conflict.
Instead of forcing Palestinian leaders to face reality and negotiate with Israel in good faith, the international community encourages Palestinian fantasies, such as Mr. Abbas’s latest initiative. In so doing, the UN is only deepening Israelis’ sense of siege, and distancing the prospects of a mutually just solution.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and a contributing editor at The New Republic.