Worldview: A U.N. vote on Palestinian state just might offer a way forward

On the West Bank, Israeli soldiers facing Palestinians at a demonstration last week. Israeli officials warn of "grave consequences" of a U.N. vote.
On the West Bank, Israeli soldiers facing Palestinians at a demonstration last week. Israeli officials warn of "grave consequences" of a U.N. vote. (NASSER SHIYOUKHI / Associated Press)
Posted: September 18, 2011

This week the Palestinians will take their bid for statehood to the United Nations.

Israeli officials are warning of "grave consequences" and U.S. diplomats are fruitlessly scrambling to prevent the vote from happening. Members of Congress are threatening to ax all aid to the Palestinians, amid dire predictions that such a vote will undermine Israel.

On the contrary. A U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood may be the only way to save the Jewish state.

As Israelis know well, their entire region is in flux in ways that make them very nervous. The status quo has crumbled within most Arab countries, nor will it last within the West Bank and Gaza.

The Oslo peace process is dead. There's plenty of blame to go around, but the coup de grace was delivered by relentless Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank. With the end of Oslo, chances are fading for a two-state solution whereby Israel and Palestine would coexist side by side.

Many Palestinians (and much of the "street" in Arab states that are undergoing upheaval) have given up on the idea of two states. So have most Israelis. Yet the death of the two-state concept and the peace process that went with it creates existential dangers for the Jewish state.

Previous Israeli leaders knew that failure to create two states meant Israel would be left in control of a Palestinian population that would eventually outnumber Israeli Jews. That was the nightmare that drove the hawkish Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to embrace the Oslo formula.

Rabin understood that a "one-state option" would create unacceptable choices for Israel: It could become an apartheid state, controlling a majority of Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza cantons; or it could give the Palestinian majority full citizenship and lose its Jewish character.

Either option promises endless bloodshed: Each community would want to dominate the other if they were forever entwined in the same state.

The one-state option becomes even more risky in the era of the Arab awakening; the spectre of permanent Israeli occupation will doom relations with her Arab neighbors. It will sour relations with much of the world and further isolate Israel.

Palestinians have been watching tens of thousands of their Arab brethren in Cairo, Tunis, and Syrian cities carry on nonviolent demonstrations and they are bound to do likewise, sooner rather than later. What will Israel do? Permanent occupation is simply not viable for Jerusalem in the long run.

So it's essential for Israel to resurrect the two-state idea on a serious basis. Here's where the U.N. resolution comes in.

A U.N. resolution, rightly phrased, would revive - and enshrine - the principles of the two-state solution and could pave the way back to serious peace talks. It won't achieve actual statehood, but it will give the Palestinians enhanced international status.

Ideally, it would call for a border based on June 1967 lines, with agreed, equal land swaps. (Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of this formula, previous Israeli prime ministers have relied on it for the last two decades.)

And - critically - the resolution would call for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples. This would address basic Israeli concerns about delegitimization. The resolution should reference the 2002 Arab peace initiative that called on all Arab states to recognize Israel if a two-state settlement was achieved.

Longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat believes the U.N. vote may be the only way to save the two-state concept. He said on Tuesday: "We want to present the United Nations vote as an opportunity for all of us to preserve the two-state solution."

He was echoed by Egyptian diplomat Nabil el-Araby, now head of the Arab League, who told journalists a U.N. vote would change the Israeli-Palestinian dispute "from a conflict about existence to a conflict about borders."

So why are Israel and the Obama team so opposed to the U.N. vote?

Netanyahu decries the U.N. effort as "unilateral" and says it violates the Oslo peace accords. Yet Israel has pursued a unilateral policy of building settlements on the West Bank, a major reason why talks weren't revived.

The Israeli leader's deep skepticism about a Palestinian state and his rejection of positions taken by previous Israeli leaders may thwart talks in the near term. So may divisions within the top Palestinian leadership.

But a U.N. resolution could keep the two-state formula alive until talks can resume in the future. Legitimate Israeli concerns could be alleviated by careful phrasing. That's why the Obama administration should have joined Europeans in helping Palestinians craft it, rather than try to block it.

It's not too late for an eleventh-hour effort at shaping the text. (The Obama team should also try to prevent hostile overreaction in Congress and in Jerusalem toward Palestinians after the voting.) Remember: This resolution could help, not harm, the survival of the Jewish state.


E-mail Trudy Rubin

at trubin@phillynews.com.

 

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