Paul Pillar
The National Interest (Blog)
October 21, 2010 - 12:00am

Whatever is your opinion about the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians, you have to give the Palestinians credit for having hit upon a clever idea to inject into the current impasse. That idea, currently a subject of discussion among Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, is to appeal to international bodies for some kind of affirmation of Palestine as a state on land Israel conquered in the 1967 war. The reactions to this idea, even though it is still just a proposal (apart from an argument already being made to the International Court of Justice that the Palestinian Authority has enough of the attributes of a state to have standing to bring cases before the court), show that the Palestinians have hit a weak spot, or at least a sore one.

Any such affirmation would not bring the Palestinians materially closer to real statehood. The goal of Palestinian statehood has repeatedly been affirmed and supported internationally, and has even been accepted—reluctantly—by the current Israeli government as supposedly an objective of U.S.-sponsored negotiations. So another affirmation almost seems superfluous. And an affirmation would not bring the Palestinians one inch closer to an actual sovereign state on the ground, where the determinative factor is continued Israeli military control of the West Bank supplemented by the daily creation of still more facts on the ground in the form of expanded Israeli settlements.

And yet, defenders of Israeli policy have responded to the Palestinian idea with apparent alarm. In the United States, the defenders have been cranking up their political steamroller in particularly blatant fashion, charging President Obama with being anti-Israel (see Tom Friedman's recent take [3] on how nonsensical that charge is) and daring him to stand up to the steamroller on this issue. Charges of “delegitimization” of Israel, which during recent months have been thrown liberally and indiscriminately at any criticism of Israeli policy, are getting flung in increasingly ridiculous fashion. The principal goal of all of this fuming and flinging is a U.S. veto should the matter come before the United Nations Security Council.

The reaction to the statehood affirmation idea has been so vehement because the idea hits at not just one but several vulnerabilities in the Israeli posture. Israeli opposition to such an affirmation would call into further question whether the Israelis, and specifically Prime Minister Netanyahu, are sincere or not in ostensibly accepting the concept of a Palestinian state. Any forum for a fresh international declaration on the subject would demonstrate anew the almost total absence of support for Israel's expansion of settlements. Most important, an affirmation would demonstrate clearly that the security and legitimacy of Israel is a separate and very different thing from the issue of settlements and occupied territory, despite the strenuous efforts of Israel and the defenders of Israel policy to blur the two.

Far from being part of a “delegitimization campaign against Israel,” as Abraham Foxman charges [4], an affirmation of Palestinian statehood within 1967 boundaries would implicitly and necessarily reaffirm Israel's legitimacy and right to exist on the other side of those boundaries. John Bolton tries clumsily to blur the issues [5] again when he says in one sentence that a Security Council resolution mentioning 1967 lines as state borders would “call into question even Israel's legitimacy”—which it demonstrably would not—and then shifts the subject in the next sentence in stating that such a resolution would “delegitimize both Israel's authority and settlements beyond the 1967 lines.” The legitimacy of the settlements is very much an issue here, although an international resolution would not delegitimize them so much as it would recognize that they never were legitimate in the first place.

If a U.S. veto of such a Security Council resolution led the Palestinians to turn to the General Assembly, there would be, as Ethan Bronner points out [4] in his article on the subject in the New York Times, a “dark or poetic” symmetry. It was another General Assembly resolution –the one in 1947 that partitioned Palestine between a Jewish state and an Arab state—that Israel has long regarded as the source of its international legitimacy.

One more thing about that earlier resolution: the U.N. partition plan [6] allotted 56 percent of Palestine to the Jewish state and 43 percent to the Arab one. Jewish military success in the subsequent war meant that the new Jewish state wound up with 78 percent of the land and the Arabs with only 22 percent. Palestinian leaders—even when they included Yasser Arafat—long ago gave up trying to claw back the lost 21 percent, even though Israel gained it only on the battlefield and not in any legitimizing international diplomatic forum. That background may help to explain why the current Palestinian leadership is as reluctant as it is to bow once again to superior Israeli power and to let Israeli seizure of land determine the fate of the 22 percent that is left.

If the Palestinians decide to act on their clever idea, the matter ought never to make it to the General Assembly. In the Security Council the proper U.S. vote would be an abstention, denoting an intention to be an honest broker between two peoples who have fought so long over the same land.


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