On the Palestinian request for UN recognition


An essay in Foreign Policy magazine asks an interesting question about the long-mooted Palestinian plan to request UN recognition next month: does Palestine meet the technical criteria as a state?  It is not difficult to guess how the essay answers this question from its title, “The Palestinians’ Imaginary State,” and its author Steven J. Rosen — who was a senior official at the Israel lobby AIPAC for 23 years — certainly makes an unconventional choice by the editors if they were seeking a fair examination of the legitimacy of Palestinian claims.  And, indeed, what follows is the kind of faux-legalistic analysis that deliberately misses the political forest for the trees: Rosen asserts that either the Hamas-led Gaza Strip or the Palestinian Authority-led West Bank (within its truncated, carved up Oslo II borders not the 1967 borders) could apply independently — anathema to both sides, as Rosen surely knows — but that a single Palestinian state is imaginary so does not meet the criteria.  The central arguments here are that Mahmoud Abbas is not the legally constituted president (one can imagine the thinning of the ranks in the UN General Assembly if having a legitimately elected president were a criteria for membership) and that the Palestinian Authority does not have control over its territory (which ignores a great many precedents involving civil wars in UN member countries, most famously that Taiwan held the China seat at the UN for 22 years after it had lost control of the mainland).  Though Rosen does not acknowledge this, the reason a unified Palestinian state is ‘imaginary’ at this point has a lot to do with Israeli policy: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza should have come as a negotiated transition with the PA and contributed significantly to the Hamas takeover, to say nothing of the ongoing occupation in the West Bank, the settlements, the Israeli buffer zones along the borders with Jordan, and so on.

Rosen has written the kind of piece that will allow people opposed to a Palestinian state to feel they have legalistic reasons for doing so.  To everyone else, it reads as propaganda.  Personally, I believe the Palestinian move to gain UN recognition is a mistake, but for other reasons.  Clearly, it is a desperate move, trying to create a point of leverage where none exists.  The US will veto anything that gets to the Security Council and the Israelis have treated the UN and its General Assembly resolutions with disregard for decades so one more inconvenient decision by the international body will have no effect.  Worse, unilateral action by the Palestinians risks the same extreme counteraction as Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza did: even if it seems, superficially, like a step in the right direction — as I wrote in a Slate article at the time of the Gaza withdrawal — politically it empowers the extremists and undermines the moderates.

In the end, there will be a Palestinian state.  It will come through a negotiated settlement, not unilateral action.  Even the Netanyahus of the world recognize this.  The Israelis are holding out for the most compromised state achievable, one that will grant nominal sovereignty but allow the Israelis continued control.  The Palestinians are holding out for as much political control over their lives and destinies as they can gather.  Both sides need realists who may have blood on their hands but are able and willing to negotiate with each other.  That’s why Marwan Barghouti is being held on the sidelines — aka, Israeli prison, but granted some remarkable privileges — so that he can be reintroduced into the process as a credible negotiating partner.  Who is the Barghouti of Israel, with both the political standing and the strategic vision to negotiate?  Netanyahu is no Menachem Begin, so the question remains open.


A speculative addendum: Here is my wild card guess for who else on the Palestinian side will play a constructive role in a final negotiated settlement: Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political leader.  I know that sounds insane.  But the resolution of intractable political problems is an ugly process and he is, surely, the Menachem Begin of Israel: both are terrorists by any measure, but with the vision to see that politics wins the day in the end.  Just watch.


As a side note: The comments attached to that Foreign Policy essay (at the bottom of the page online) make for especially unedifying reading.  Mercifully, few of the commenters will have a seat at the negotiating table when the time comes.



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