TEL AVIV ― It should be clear to all by now that talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cannot produce a peace agreement. Yet it would be wrong to dwell excessively on current leaders’ weaknesses, for to do so presupposes that with different leaders at the helm, an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be reached through bilateral negotiations.
Alas, as a recent leak of Palestinian official papers demonstrates, this is not the case. This typifies the dissonant historical rhythms of the Middle East. In the past, Israel’s offers were rejected by the Palestinians; now it seems that Israel spurned especially flexible Palestinian positions. Personalities are, of course, important in history, but the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has for decades been a hostage to the impersonal forces of history.
Indeed, failure to reach a settlement in the past was not the result of bad faith, or inadequate negotiating skills. Rather, failure stemmed from the inherent incapacity of both parties to reconcile themselves to each other’s fundamental requirements for a settlement. Left to our own devices, we have proven ourselves tragically incapable of breaking the genetic code of our dispute.
Abbas is thus right to opt for a new peace paradigm, but his plan for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence might be the wrong choice. He expects that a unilateral yet internationally recognized declaration of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders would put unbearable pressure on an Israel haunted by the specter of worldwide de-legitimization.
The devastating effects of the new Palestinian strategy on Israel’s international standing cannot be denied. The current wave of international recognition of Palestinian statehood is indeed a major blow to Israel’s foreign relations. Particularly painful is that key Latin American countries, where Israel once enjoyed an almost mythological status, have joined that wave.
Abbas assumes that from the moment his state is recognized by the United Nations Security Council, Israel will become the illegal occupier of a sovereign state (and a full member of the U.N.). At that point, Israel would thus be subject to international sanctions that would destroy its economy and further undermine its image, condemning the country to the status of an international pariah.
But, notwithstanding the damage that the Palestinian strategy is inflicting on Israel’s increasingly fragile international standing, Abbas might be embarking on what could turn out to be a self-defeating diplomatic exercise. Already feeling the heat of a major diplomatic debacle, Israel might soon preempt the Palestinian diplomatic offensive with a “peace plan” of its own. Inevitably inadequate ― one idea being toyed with is recognition of a Palestinian state in provisional borders that might encompass around 50 percemt of the West Bank ― it will nonetheless occupy the attention of the international community, and perhaps even derail the new Palestinian strategy.
Moreover, should Abbas fail to muster the support of the United States and Europe, Netanyahu might feel free to cancel existing agreements and engage in unilateral steps of his own. Nor would U.S. and European support necessarily produce the results that Abbas expects. If pushed to the wall, Israel might try to extricate itself from an internationally untenable position by unilaterally disengaging from the West Bank up to its “security fence.”
A hostile Palestinian state would then automatically emerge on the other side of what is in fact a massive wall ― a state that might not necessarily be ruled by the PLO. A violent Israeli disengagement, and thus the end of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on security matters, might unleash such instability that Hamas emerges as a serious contender for power in the West Bank. This, in turn, might draw Jordan into the affairs of the West Bank, just as Egypt is being drawn against its will into the affairs of Gaza.
Another risk implied by a unilateral Palestinian move to statehood is that it might reduce the conflict with Israel to a banal border dispute between sovereign states. Any government that recognizes the Palestinian state would inevitably view that act as the end of the peace process, and neither Europe nor the U.S. would include in the package any acknowledgement of the Palestinian right of return to areas lost to Israel in 1948. Indeed, by unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state along the 1967 ceasefire line, Abbas would be putting into practice Israel’s vision of “two states for two peoples.”
Indeed, some on the Israeli side argue that, instead of fighting a Palestinian declaration of statehood, Israel should seize the opportunity to turn the conflict into a manageable state-to-state territorial dispute. It could then negotiate with the U.S. the wording of the U.N. resolution in a way that would end up creating a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed territorial adjustments. Such a resolution would neutralize thorny “narrative” issues, such as the right of return, which have shattered every attempt to reach a settlement.
Either way, we stand at the end of the peace process as we have known it to date. This Gordian knot cannot be untied; it needs to be cut by robust third-party mediation. But a U.S. peace plan aimed at bridging the gaps between the parties stands a chance only if it is built around a solid international alliance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Even then, such a plan would require especially laborious and complex diplomatic engineering.
Yet, no matter how enamored of the “international community” they may be, the Palestinians might not be happy with a plan that comes from a U.S.-led international alliance. A plan that almost certainly would have to satisfy Israel’s security concerns and lean toward acknowledging its Jewishness ― in a way that might entirely neutralize the Palestinian ethos of return ― would be especially unpalatable to them.
By Shlomo Ben-Ami
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace, is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.” ― Ed.