By David K. Shipler
Finally the Palestinians have gained complete, uncontested control over a piece of territory: several comfortable chairs in the hall at Unesco’s Paris headquarters. If their quest for national recognition continues along this path, the Palestinian state will expand to similar furniture in various exquisite meeting rooms in Geneva and New York, rendering Palestine the first country to exist in committee but not in reality.
There is something terribly sad about this spectacle.
Virtually the entire world, Israel included, has come to endorse the justice of Palestinian statehood. This marks a revolution from thirty years ago, when the United States remained opposed, and the only Israeli Jews to support Palestinian sovereignty were on the extreme left, in the Communist Party. At the time, even Israel’s Peace Now movement wouldn’t call for Palestinian statehood for fear of losing mainstream support for its campaign to end Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Now, 69 percent of Israelis recently polled by Hebrew University say that Israel should accept a U.N. decision to recognize a Palestinian state—a remarkably high percentage after all the rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza, all the suicide bombers of the second intifada, and all the Palestinian propaganda claiming Haifa and Tiberius and other Israeli cities as Palestinian. There has been a sea change, which began with the Oslo accords of 1993. Yet the rightwing Israeli government has enlisted the U.S in attempts to scuttle or delay U.N. recognition, which Washington can veto in the Security Council but cannot stop in the General Assembly, which could grant full observer status.
The disputed question is not whether, but how, to get to a Palestinian state. Should it be by negotiation or by declaration? The first route, preferred by Washington, travels over hard ground and leads to real statehood; the second, currently pursued by frustrated Palestinians, soars through intoxicating air and produces an exciting symbol. It was the symbolic victory that propelled the bulk of Unesco’s delegates to their feet when their lopsided vote was announced this week to admit “Palestine” to the U.N. agency: 107 to 14 with 52 abstentions. They cheered wildly, as if Palestine had just achieved sovereignty. These are supposed to be sober-minded diplomats. One wonders what they will do if independent statehood actually comes about.
Meanwhile, the theoretical country of Palestine seems destined to exist in a parallel universe, gaining admission to one U.N. agency after another, and finally to the General Assembly, without having a real state on the ground. It has no fixed geographical definition on the West Bank, just scattered blobs on a map showing fragmented jurisdiction over concentrations of Palestinians. Its Gaza component, run by Hamas, stands in a warlike posture against its West Bank pseudo-government, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The borders are controlled by its neighbors—Israel, Egypt, and Jordan—and its territory on the West Bank is perpetually vulnerable to expropriation for Israeli settlements. The declaration of symbolic statehood would provide nothing to ordinary Palestinians except a fleeting sense of dignity that will quickly descend again into daily humiliation at checkpoints and barricades.
Of course symbols and myths have always been woven into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each side’s historical narrative has its share of fantasy and distortion, and the terrain of grievance and yearning includes the landmarks of religion. No true resolution is possible without addressing the symbols and myths, either by acknowledging them or by putting them to rest with a mutual stance of compassion and accommodation. What then is the role of symbolic, mythological statehood?
As long as the conflict remains a contest for international opinion, stature on the world stage counts. So Palestinians might score points in international law by arguing that Israel now occupies and settles another country, not just a disputed territory. Palestinians would gain a platform in international bodies and a legitimate claim as custodians of world heritage sites as designated by Unesco, for example. In the realm of diplomacy, these might be considered “facts on the ground,” to use former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s term of affection for the Jewish settlements he promoted on Palestinian lands.
So Israel is naturally uncomfortable with the U.N. gambit. Yet a question arises about where the Israeli interest might lie in all this. Israel’s own statehood was born of a United Nations vote, after all, not through negotiations with its neighbors. Further, the U.N. imprimatur was not enough to convert the concept of independence into its culmination in fact, as it will not be sufficient for the Palestinians. In Israel’s case, it took a war with the surrounding Arabs. For the Palestinians, it will take a successful negotiation with the Israelis if the symbol is to be followed by the reality.
In the traditional calculation, peace agreements reflect power on the ground, with the weaker side acquiescing. The Palestine Liberation Organization, weakened after the 1982 Lebanon War and the 1991 Gulf War, regained its footing by recognizing and negotiating with Israel. But it is fair to ask whether the equation might now be reversed, whether—in the wildest, most hopefully unrealistic scenario—the stature of symbolic statehood could give Palestinian leaders a sense of authority to compromise on the toughest issues.
Both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas were offered good deals if they abandoned maximalist positions, especially on control of Jerusalem with its holy sites. But they could not do it without cultivating broad consensus, especially in the larger Arab world.
In 2000, Arafat walked away from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer to share Jerusalem and withdraw from 95 percent of the West Bank. To get the land and the state, Arafat would have had to declare an “end of conflict” with Israel, a dramatic step. He demurred. Barak had given no advance notice of his Jerusalem proposal, so Washington had had no opportunity to lobby for support from Arab countries. Arafat, standing alone, was unwilling to take what he saw as the lethal risk of compromise.
In 2008, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried and failed to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to sign, on the spot, an intricate plan to give the Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and some Israeli territory to compensate for West Bank settlements that Israel would annex. Jerusalem’s Old City would be governed internationally, and a small number of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war would be allowed to return to Israel. Abbas pleaded for time to study the maps, and a meeting of the two sides’ advisers was scheduled for the following day. But the Palestinians cancelled the session, Olmert writes in his memoirs. His successor, Binyamin Netanyahu, took the proposal off the table.
Both Barak and Olmert were politically weak at the time, and Arafat and Abbas had every right to doubt their ability to see their proposals through. It is worth considering whether a strong Israeli prime minister and a strong Palestinian president—the head of a theoretical state—could do better.