Hussein Ibish and Saliba Sarsar
The Huffington Post (Opinion)
July 18, 2011 - 12:00am

With the independence of the new Republic of South Sudan, the world is again reminded that states are created on the basis of local, regional and international necessity. At least two decades of international action, as well as a long, bitter and bloody conflict produced the independence of the south, a state that has been already welcomed by the international community, the African Union, the United Nations, and has been invited to join the Arab League.

South Sudan is only the latest newly-created state in the international community. In recent decades numerous new countries have come into existence, arising out of the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, and so forth. Yet more than 60 years after its existence was envisaged by the UN partition plan for Palestine, more than 40 years after its creation was implied in the UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and almost 20 years since the Oslo Accords led the whole world to expect that Palestine would, soon, enjoy independence, there is still no Palestinian state.

It's hard to overestimate the strategic, political and cultural damage this failure to secure Palestinian independence is having on the Middle East as a region, and, indeed, throughout the globe. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing occupation that began in 1967 is completely disproportionate to its geographical and demographic size because of the profound emotional, ideological, religious and symbolic investment people throughout the world have made in it. Passions run high far beyond Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and it's no exaggeration to describe the conflict and the occupation as a cancer on the body politic of the global community.

The bottom line is this: in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea -- what has been the de facto Israeli state since 1967 -- there are approximately equal numbers, about 6 million of both, of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Muslims and Christians. One group has a state, citizenship, self-determination and independence. A small group of Palestinians, about 1 million, are citizens of Israel but subject to significant forms of discrimination. But the large majority of Palestinians live in the occupied territories without citizenship or enfranchisement of any kind, self-determination or independence, and are subject to the arbitrary and typically abusive rule of a foreign military. Moreover, they have watched as their land is steadily colonized by Israeli settlements, which are both a violation of international law and a human rights abuse against those living under occupation according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. Nowhere in the world is there any comparable level of separate and unequal as there is under Israeli rule in the occupied Palestinian territories.

David Ben-Gurion, who was Israel's prime minister twice, during 1948-1953 and 1955-1963, respectively, eloquently spoke in 1945 of the Jewish yearning for national validation and self-determination. He stated, "We are a people without a State and, therefore, a people without credentials, without recognition, without representation, without the privileges of a nation, without the means of self-defense, and without any say in our fate." These might easily be the words of a Palestinian leader in 2011.

Two years later, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, recommending the partition of Palestine into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area to be placed under special international protection, administered by the United Nations. However, the UN Security Council failed to implement Resolution 181, and as soon as the British Mandate was terminated, Jewish leaders declared the establishment of Israel, leading to the intervention by five Arab armies in what was already a raging communal civil war in Palestine. This conflict left Israel in de facto possession of not the 55 percent of mandatory Palestine envisaged in the partition resolution, but 78 percent, which are now generally regarded as the internationally accepted borders of Israel.

Sixty-three years later, and following seven wars, the displacement of over a million Palestinian refugees during the 1948 and 1967 wars (who now number more than four million), two Palestinian intifadas, and countless dead and wounded, Israel remains a nation at war and in fear, and Palestinian national aspirations remain totally unfulfilled. Israeli settlements continue to be built at an alarming pace, with 200 already constructed, and the half-million Jewish Israeli colonists living in them are squeezing Palestinians into ever smaller areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and denying them access to water and other resources.

Peace efforts such as the Oslo accords (1993); Wye River accord (1998); Camp David meeting (2000); Taba negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli delegations (2001); George Mitchell's proposal (2001); George Tenet's plan (2001); United Nations Resolution 1397, which affirmed a vision of a region where Palestine and Israel would live side by side within secure and recognized borders (2002); the Arab Peace Initiative adopted unanimously twice by the Arab League (2002); and the "roadmap" for peace adopted by the Quartet (2003); have all been creditable efforts to develop peace, but none have succeeded and thus far the agony and tragedy have simply continued.

Years of conflict and insecurity, narratives of exclusion and pain, and incompatible visions of the future, let alone understandings of the past, have created a serious disconnect between Israelis and Palestinians. Each national community is caught up in its own tendentious and exclusive narratives: Israel using the past and the present to create the future; the Palestinians using the present to recreate the past in service of the future. Both are laboring under serious illusions.

Unfortunately, while US policy has emphasized that a two-state solution is imperative for American national interests, because of the "special relationship" between the two countries, in practice it remains steadfastly in Israel's corner, vetoing 26 UN Security Council draft resolutions on Palestine since July 1973. Domestic political considerations and a powerful American popular and elite consensus in support of Israel make pressuring that country in the normal diplomatic manner very difficult for an American president. Palestinians have hoped to be able to use the "special relationship" to help mollify Israeli concerns and reassure them that because of American participation, they are not taking any inordinate risks in entering into a peace agreement with the Palestinians. So far, this strategy, while theoretically promising, has yet to demonstrate much efficacy.

According to almost all opinion polls, most Palestinians and Israelis are in favor of a negotiated two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders, with agreed upon land swaps. Unfortunately, similarly large majorities do not believe it will happen and do not trust the other side's intentions. Unless President Barack Obama is able to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to negotiate on the aforementioned parameters, then the Palestinians will be facing many more checkpoints and a stonewall of delay while the Israelis continue to seize more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Unfortunately, many Palestinians and Israelis believe that Netanyahu has no interest in pursuing a negotiated solution along the lines that Palestinians would deem acceptable. And, even more unfortunately, his unenthusiastic approach to the peace process and insistent emphasis on security above all, including peace, has proven extremely popular in Israel and he leads an unlikely but extraordinarily stable coalition government. In other words, his default position of saying "no" to everything is serving his political interests, leaving him with few incentives to be more forthcoming.

However, as numerous Israelis with impeccable national security credentials, including some very strongly rooted in the political right, have been publicly stating in recent months, it is essential to Israel's national interest to help secure the creation of a viable, democratic and peaceful State of Palestine. While the Israeli occupation resulted from conditions of the 1960s or even earlier, the time for its ending has come. An independent, contiguous, and secure Palestine (democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized, and neutral) living in peace alongside Israel is, as an apparent consensus of Israeli national security experts appear to recognize, the only way to secure Israel's long-term safety and stability. The occupation is untenable, dangerous and, ultimately, self-destructive.

The Arab states, as well as the United States and Israel, strongly require the creation of a Palestinian state for their fundamental national interests. For too long the Palestinian question has been a volatile, destabilizing variable in regional politics, the source of conflict and tension, and a powerful tool in the hands of extremists of many different varieties. This understanding was most importantly expressed through the Arab Peace Initiative, but has also been repeatedly emphasized by Arab leaders across the region. King Abdullah II of Jordan, in his memoir, Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, expressed "a sense of urgency, a conviction that the window for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is closing." We agree with him when he states, "Both sides have a moral responsibility to strive for peace... the alternative is more conflict and violence."

Every moment that is lost only benefits the proponents of extremism on all sides. Albeit a minority, they will continue to monopolize the political narrative and dictate the facts on the ground in the absence of peace. The moderates will lose heart and fade away in the smoke of violence and hate and the fog of deception.

Enlightened leadership not only leads and serves but finds like-minded followers as well, leaders in their own right, who would be eager to sustain positive change for the common good of both Palestinians and Israelis. It not only responds to constituencies, it creates them. The need for allies for peace and statehood is equally important as the need for such a consensus locally, regionally, and internationally.

What Ben Gurion envisioned for his people in 1945, all Palestinians have sought for decades. It is high time that the United States and the rest of the international community stood by them, not just rhetorically or in terms of development aid, but with practical, effective diplomatic efforts that ensure that the occupation will end, and that a Palestinian state alongside Israel will be created, recognized by the major powers of the world, and welcomed as a member state of the United Nations. Without a doubt this will require Israeli acquiescence as well, which means that negotiations are unavoidable and indispensable.

But the international community has an important role to play in laying the groundwork for such an agreement, making it crystal clear that it will accept no other outcome, applying both negative and positive pressure on both sides to make it happen, and doing everything possible to avoid any other outcome. Simply leaving it up to the parties, which are defined by the most extreme degree of power asymmetry imaginable, is not a viable option. International engagement, led by but not exclusive to the United States, is more indispensable now than ever. Especially given the role the international community played in the creation of Israel, it has a right and a responsibility to play a similar role in the creation of Palestine.

This is a delicate process, and we are not proposing an implausible and impracticable "imposition" of a solution on the parties by an international community that is unwilling and probably unable to take such steps. Nor are we suggesting that the Palestinian demand for full UN membership in September is likely to prove successful. Clearly a failed confrontation with the United States at the UN Security Council over the issue of statehood is not in anybody's interest, let alone the Palestinians. However, a greater role for the international community in resolving this exceptionally damaging and destabilizing ongoing conflict is essential. Palestinians can and should receive a major upgrade of their observer mission status from the General Assembly, and should be recognized on a bilateral basis by every state that is serious about Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There is much the international community can do to promote a two-state solution, particularly by clarifying its unshakable commitment to this outcome and its categorical refusal to accept any alternative. There is no longer any excuse for postponing or delaying such measures. They do not undermine Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; they support them insofar as they make the only reasonable, workable outcome far more likely and demonstrate that the world expects and will help the parties arrive at a two-state solution in the near future. The international community has made its commitment to Israel very clear since 1948. It must now move quickly to make its commitment to Palestine alongside Israel equally clear, especially to the Palestinians and the Israelis.


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