Three questions about Israel and a Palestinian state

In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s embarrassing and diplomatically maladroit performance at the White House on Friday and President Obama’s two addresses about the Middle East in the past four days, the core questions Americans and the world confront regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are thrown once again into stark relief. There are three ...

553769_netanyahu_picnik_02.jpg
553769_netanyahu_picnik_02.jpg

In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's embarrassing and diplomatically maladroit performance at the White House on Friday and President Obama's two addresses about the Middle East in the past four days, the core questions Americans and the world confront regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are thrown once again into stark relief.

There are three such questions. First: What is more dangerous for Israel: the creation of a Palestinian state or the lack of a Palestinian state? Next: More saliently, perhaps, does such a state effectively already exist? Finally: Even more fundamentally, if the Palestinian people seek a state, do not the precise principles of self-determination and the legitimizing force and effect of international will that led to the creation of Israel require the acceptance of the idea of such a state, especially if ratified by the United Nations?

In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s embarrassing and diplomatically maladroit performance at the White House on Friday and President Obama’s two addresses about the Middle East in the past four days, the core questions Americans and the world confront regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are thrown once again into stark relief.

There are three such questions. First: What is more dangerous for Israel: the creation of a Palestinian state or the lack of a Palestinian state? Next: More saliently, perhaps, does such a state effectively already exist? Finally: Even more fundamentally, if the Palestinian people seek a state, do not the precise principles of self-determination and the legitimizing force and effect of international will that led to the creation of Israel require the acceptance of the idea of such a state, especially if ratified by the United Nations?

As to the first question, the status quo has Israel sinking into a strategic quicksand and the flailing of Netanyahu is not helping matters any. The ground has given way beneath the country’s feet for several reasons. One, time and demographics are empowering the Palestinians. Two, despite some deep and apparent flaws, the Palestinian leadership is proving more adept and winning global public opinion than that of the Israelis. Three, the geopolitics of the region have been changed due to recent political upheaval, most notably the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Four, Israeli settlements policy is widely seen as a form of reckless, unconstructive provocation and an abuse of power.  Fifth, support for Israel even among its most reliable allies is fading and the behavior of Netanyahu is not helping matters. Sixth, well, sixth brings us to the next question.

The reality is that today the world sees the Palestinians as a nation in every respect but official status. They have common heritage, common interests, a shared culture, a government, a flag, a desire to be an independent people and a legitimate claim on territory that no one, not even Israel or the U.S. disputes. The only thing keeping them from actually being an independent state are a few unresolved issues regarding territory and their relationship with Israel. Admittedly these are deeply complex issues. Furthermore it is clear to any objective observer that the Palestinians have been every bit as obstructionist as the Israelis in addressing them. But the key fact that needs to be understood by Netanyahu is that a sea-change in international attitudes has occurred. Once Israel was the underdog, the nation of victims of historical injustice who were scraping out a U.N. mandated existence in a hostile environment. Israel’s security was, therefore, central. Today, Israel is seen as the established power denying a smaller, aspirant power its place in the world.

While it is essential to objectively acknowledge that other larger powers, like Iran, are seeking to use the Palestinian cause to advance their own strategic interests, it is also important that Netanyahu come to grips with the scorching irony at the heart of the current debate: The Palestinians have become the Israelis. They have not only usurped their role but the Israelis have played right into their hands through the insensitivity of Netanyahu and others on the Israeli right.

It is a sad commentary on the Israeli Prime Minister because as many in his own government have told him, he could reset the debate simply by being just a modest amount more forward-leaning when it came to negotiating. Such a position would very likely put the Palestinians on the defensive and again reveal the ill-intentions of factions among their own leadership as has happened more than once in the past when they were unable to step up and accept terms widely seen as fair when they were offered. Of course, even better still for all involved, it might move the two countries toward even an interim peace accord that could reduce tensions and allow both sides to focus on more effectively addressing the core threats from within associated with the economic and social tensions not just between but within the two nations.

Making an issue of the 1967 borders (which of course must serve as the starting point for any discussions about territory) or focusing on blocking the Palestinian moves toward U.N. acceptance of their statehood are fundamental errors for Netanyahu. The positions strengthen the Palestinians without gaining anything real for Israel.

Perhaps however, it is already too late.  The Palestinians are now the ones driving the discussion. And they are posing a question quite different from the one Netanyahu is intent on addressing. Theirs is: How far will Israel go to stop them from claiming their rights as a state? How far will Israel go in assuming the role its own enemies played in the first decades of its life?

Theirs is no longer fundamentally a question about territory. It’s become a question about who is on the right side of history.  It is a double irony that the leader of a tiny nation that triumphed not because of but in spite of its territorial dimensions should fail to recognize such a pivotal fact.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf
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