The Middle East Channel

Who’s afraid of a unilateral declaration?

Later this evening, the House is set to vote on a resolution "condemning unilateral declarations of a Palestinian state." Introduced by Rep. Howard Berman, the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the suspension bill urges Palestinian leaders to "ease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process, including efforts to gain recognition of a ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Later this evening, the House is set to vote on a resolution "condemning unilateral declarations of a Palestinian state." Introduced by Rep. Howard Berman, the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the suspension bill urges Palestinian leaders to "ease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process, including efforts to gain recognition of a Palestinian state from other nations, within the United Nations, and in other international forums prior to achievement of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and calls upon foreign governments not to extend such recognition." In other words, despite the fact that the Netanyahu government recently rejected what Thomas Friedman characterized as a $3.5 billion "bribe," the blame, yet again, is put squarely on the Palestinians.

The riled-up congressional response is predictable but in way, it also contradicts the traditional hardline argument in favor of continued occupation. One might naively expect foreign policy hawks to be overjoyed at the news that Palestinian leaders are thinking about declaring a state along June 4, 1967 borders. The hawks have long insisted that the Palestinians’ raison d’être is to eradicate Israel. For instance, Jonathan Schanzer, research director at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writes in his book Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, "Palestinian nationalism has been based more on destruction (of a Jewish state) than creation (of its own state)."

But today we have Palestinians contemplating independence in territory limited to just 22% of historic Palestine. In other words, the very fact that the Palestinians are willing to settle for 22% of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean demonstrates that the issue they care about is having their own state and ending the occupation, not supplanting Israel. If Palestinians take their case to the United Nations, then it’s proof that their nationalism isn’t rooted in destruction. It’s a move that you’d expect hawks – especially those who understand that the occupation jeopardizes Israel’s character and security – to endorse.

Instead, Schanzer, writing in Foreign Policy last week, argued "a declaration of statehood without Israeli approval could start a war in which the Palestinians themselves would pay the highest price." Such a move, he went on to argue, would mean increased conflict with Israel, violence between the rival Palestinian factions, and most crucially, the wrath of the settlers. "If the Palestinian government unilaterally claims land where an estimated 400,000 Israeli settlers currently reside in the West Bank," he writes, "don’t expect them simply to pull up and move, especially if they were not consulted on the matter. Expect them to fight."

According to Schanzer, if there’s one way to fast-track a compromise and achieve lasting peace, it’s to first consult with the settlers and call for borders that they are comfortable with. And if they don’t agree to a specific compromise, just give them time to build more settlements until they eventually warm to the idea of giving it all up. Of course, consulting with people who believe that all the land belongs to them in perpetuity is an obvious nonstarter.

As Reza Aslan put it in The Daily Beast, "if there is one thing the Palestinians have learned in four decades of fruitless peace talks, it is that the only way [they] will ever be allowed to have a state of their own is if they simply seize it for themselves." The Palestinians would surely not be setting any precedent by taking their national aspirations before the United Nations General Assembly. The Israelis did the same in 1947.

And that’s the problem with Schanzer’s argument in FP: he defends Israeli nationalism and its methods while denying it to Palestinians. In Hamas vs. Fatah, Schanzer does correctly point out that "nationalism has been responsible for numerous wars and conflicts around the globe. Combined with xenophobia, chauvinism, and/or irredentism, nationalism can become as dangerous as any other radical ideology."

This is true of nationalism everywhere; every movement or ideology unchecked by the forces of reality has the strong urge to become violent and irredentist. The settlers in the West Bank, many of them who believe that "there is no such thing as a Palestinian people," illustrate this point perfectly. But Schanzer writes as if the potential for nationalism to turn ugly is reason to deny Palestinians a homeland.

The more he defends an indefensible occupation, the more Schanzer must contradict himself. For instance, he argues that Palestinians want nothing more than the destruction of Israel and therefore, that their national aspirations shouldn’t be taken seriously. On the other hand, he writes that Palestinians do want a homeland, but their nationalism is unrefined and not in accordance with Western standards. When the two sentiments appear to make no sense taken together, Schanzer is left with little more than speculation. "A unilateral declaration of statehood," he predicts, "would probably not do the Palestinians any favors." (Suddenly, Schanzer professes concern for the Palestinians!)

Palestinian leaders must carefully decide how to proceed at this critically important juncture. Dialogue with their constituencies is crucial, but that is difficult given that the various factions, Fatah in particular, is undemocratic and wields largely unaccountable power. Going before the General Assembly is a serious matter with potentially far-reaching consequences, not just for Palestinians and Israelis, but also for the international system. To be sure, a UN resolution in favor of a Palestinian state would be no panacea, especially if the current PLO leadership went to the UN chamber without so much as a strategy. It will have to be a well-calibrated and highly thought-out move — and in such a case, it might just work.

Walid Zafar is a researcher at Media Matters Action Network

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