Simon Tisdall
The Guardian (Opinion)
January 3, 2011 - 1:00am

As unfulfilled hopes of peace in the Middle East in 2010 fade from memory, the spectre of war in 2011 looms large. The collapse of Barack Obama's attempt to broker direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians has created a dangerous vacuum. Men of violence vie to fill it.

There is another way. It could prevent renewed bloodletting, would potentially provide relief and justice for both sides, would likely be supported by most Israelis and Palestinians, and would help clear the path to a wider Arab-Israeli settlement. It is the immediate declaration of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, recognised by the US and UN. It is an idea whose time has come.

The current situation, dissected by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in this site last month, is not tenable. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president who pinned his policy on talks, is critically wounded by their failure. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, having rebuffed Obama's centrist approach, has rendered himself hostage to Israel's more assertive hard right.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, insists all is not lost. But the heart has gone out of the US peace drive. In her "what do we do now?" speech last month, Clinton talked vaguely about a framework agreement, to be prefabricated "in the next few months". This cannot have persuaded anyone. More in keeping with the darkness of the hour was her warning that a continuing occupation threatened the vision of a democratic Jewish state "in the historic homeland of the Jewish people", and strengthened "the hands of extremists and rejectionists across the region". She continued: "The occupation ... is unacceptable and, ultimately, unsustainable."

Most at least can agree on that. But renewed rocket attacks from Hamas-dominated Gaza and inevitable Israeli reprisals, the accelerating Hezbollah-focused arms race in unstable Lebanon, Syria's brooding hostility, and the unpredictable Iranian threat are all triggers that could blow away the ragged tatters of Clinton's diplomatic veil.

"The agenda is changing," wrote the Israeli commentator Aluf Benn in Ha'aretz. "Instead of cultivating false hopes for a peace agreement, the international effort should be geared toward heading off a war ... Obama will have to redouble his supervision of [Netanyahu] to head off an Operation Cast Lead II [in Gaza] or Israeli action in Iran."

There is another way. The Palestinians are pursuing it. Moves are afoot to rally support for a UN security council resolution recognising Palestinian statehood. Abbas recently acquired backing from a clutch of South American countries. These are now added to the roughly 100 countries that already recognise, in theory, an independent Palestine.

The idea is to take a leaf from Israel's book, creating facts on the ground, and force a two-state solution into being. The strategy is to turn the peace process on its head, with talks on substantive issues following, rather than preceding, the establishment of two equal state parties offering mutual security guarantees. The post-independence starting point might be talks on fixing agreed borders, based on the 4 June 1967 lines.

"To jump-start the negotiations, why not have Israel declare it recognises the Arab state of Palestine, with equal rights for all its citizens, and have the PLO declare it recognises the Jewish state of Israel, with equal rights for all its citizens?" suggested Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, a Washington thinktank. "The UN created a Jewish state six decades ago, and it can create a Palestinian state now," said Robert Wright in the New York Times.

The objections to such a demarche are significant and numerous – but not necessarily insurmountable. The most frequently mentioned is that the US would veto any UN independence resolution, insisting that a deal must come through negotiation, not unilateral measures. But George Bush's former UN ambassador John Bolton is not so sure. He suggested that Obama, anxious to realise his September 2010 vision of creating an independent Palestine this year, and refusing to be thwarted by Netanyahu, might abstain. "That would allow a near-certain [security council] majority," Bolton said.

Others suggest Palestinian political divisions make such a move impractical. Jonathan Schanzer, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, warned that "a declaration of statehood without Israeli approval ... is an almost surefire recipe for war". But if war is coming anyway, why not take the plunge?

Obama says Israel-Palestine peace is a US national security interest. He's correct. Many others say the prospect of a two-state solution is disappearing fast. They're correct too. That's two good reasons for Obama to find the courage to act, added to a legacy-enhancing third: ending the historic wrong done to the Palestinian people.

Amid all the fears of reviving strife, a declaration of Palestinian independence would change the regional dynamic for the better, disarm the rejectionists, and provide an immensely positive impetus towards lasting peace. There is another way. This is it.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017