Keith Ellison
The New York Times (Opinion)
September 23, 2011 - 12:00am

The United States should support the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations. The Palestinian people deserve a state now. As the current debate unfolds, I am reminded of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1965: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”

After almost two decades of unsuccessful negotiations among Israel, the Palestinians and partner states, it is understandable that the Palestinian Authority has elected to go to the United Nations — the international body empowered to mediate conflict and recognize statehood. Despite the initial promise of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s — particularly before the horrific assassination of the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin — direct negotiations have deteriorated to a dismally low point.

Given this impasse and Israel’s settlement expansion, the Palestinian Authority is following the example of dozens of current United Nations members, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Eritrea, as well as South Sudan, which successfully seceded from Sudan after a protracted civil war and gained admission to the United Nations in July. Israel, our ally, followed a comparable process and rightfully gained admission to the United Nations in 1949. And in this case, Arab countries that have never recognized Israel would implicitly be doing so when they voted to recognize a Palestinian state that envisioned itself beside Israel in a two-state solution to their conflict. That in itself would be a breakthrough, confirming Israel’s solid standing in the region.

World leaders should pause before criticizing the Palestinians’ intention to follow the same legal process by which many of their own nations achieved international recognition. Palestinian leaders have sought statehood through violence and terrorism: they hijacked planes and massacred Israeli athletes in Munich in the 1970s, and bombed buses during the second intifada. These abhorrent acts of terrorism were rightly rejected by the world community and stymied the Palestinians’ efforts to gain statehood recognition. But the Palestinian Authority, unlike Hamas, is pursuing statehood nonviolently and diplomatically now, so why are we discouraging its efforts?

Criticisms of the Palestinian Authority’s desire for the United Nations to act include assertions that this approach to statehood is unilateral and precludes negotiations with Israel. Yet the process of gaining recognition from the United Nations Security Council is multilateral by definition. No one disputes that further direct negotiations will be needed to resolve the outstanding final status issues of the conflict, including borders, repatriation of refugees, national security and the claims of both sides to Jerusalem. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, has said he will urge Israel to resume negotiations immediately after a United Nations vote. Both sides must avoid violence and work to repair relations.

Some of my Congressional colleagues have threatened to cut off United States aid to the Palestinian Authority if it continues pressing for statehood. However, officials from all nations involved acknowledge that American aid has vastly improved the security situation for Israel and the Palestinians. Thanks in large part to American assistance, incidents of terrorism in Israel have receded from the extraordinary levels of the first half of the last decade.

Given its successful security collaboration with the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government said in a report recently that it “calls for ongoing international support for the Palestinian Authority budget and development projects.” Undermining our current progress by cutting off American aid would be counterproductive — especially for Israel and the United States — and would further delay peace in the Middle East.

The Palestinian people are a distinct group that desires, and deserves, to have a homeland that is internationally recognized as a state. The international community has a formal process for recognizing states, and the Palestinian Authority is following that process. As it seeks to join the community of nations this month, world leaders should not forget King’s important lesson about doing what is right. The Palestinians’ use of multilateral diplomacy to achieve statehood represents a step toward achieving the two-state solution and achieving a more stable Middle East. It is an opportunity, not a threat. We should seize it now.


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