Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Waiting for the Tsunami

Israel is going to lose the fight at the U.N. over Palestinian statehood, but it can at least limit the damage.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently described an impending U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders as a "diplomatic tsunami" for Israel. Indeed, the resolution, likely to be introduced in September, is assured of overwhelming support. Though a few countries may abstain or vote no -- including the United States, of course -- the reason will be process, not substance, arguing that a Palestinian state should only be established through negotiations.

A tsunami may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there's no doubt that the resolution will affect the nature of the conflict: Israel would be seen as occupying a proto-state, rather than territory of questionable status. It could also serve as the basis for international sanctions against Israel. On the ground, however, nothing will change; the Palestinians will be as far as ever from a state. Israel will retain control of the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority will probably remain divided in practice despite the recent unity pact. In any event, only the Security Council, not the General Assembly, can recognize and admit a new state -- which makes Palestinian statehood an unlikely scenario given U.S. veto power. The Palestinians will, however, achieve a dramatic diplomatic and public relations victory.

It does not matter that the Palestinians would probably reject any peace proposal -- witness their rejection of Barak and Ehud Olmert's dramatic proposals in 2000 and 2008 -- or that no agreement is likely, even desirable, pending full reunification of Hamas and Fatah. The international community has swallowed the Arab narrative that the entire conflict boils down to two words -- occupation and settlements -- and could be resolved if only Israel would finally terminate them. Frustrated by Israel's perceived intransigence, the international community is seeking ways to impose a deal and will broadly support the U.N. resolution.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently described an impending U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders as a "diplomatic tsunami" for Israel. Indeed, the resolution, likely to be introduced in September, is assured of overwhelming support. Though a few countries may abstain or vote no — including the United States, of course — the reason will be process, not substance, arguing that a Palestinian state should only be established through negotiations.

A tsunami may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that the resolution will affect the nature of the conflict: Israel would be seen as occupying a proto-state, rather than territory of questionable status. It could also serve as the basis for international sanctions against Israel. On the ground, however, nothing will change; the Palestinians will be as far as ever from a state. Israel will retain control of the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority will probably remain divided in practice despite the recent unity pact. In any event, only the Security Council, not the General Assembly, can recognize and admit a new state — which makes Palestinian statehood an unlikely scenario given U.S. veto power. The Palestinians will, however, achieve a dramatic diplomatic and public relations victory.

It does not matter that the Palestinians would probably reject any peace proposal — witness their rejection of Barak and Ehud Olmert’s dramatic proposals in 2000 and 2008 — or that no agreement is likely, even desirable, pending full reunification of Hamas and Fatah. The international community has swallowed the Arab narrative that the entire conflict boils down to two words — occupation and settlements — and could be resolved if only Israel would finally terminate them. Frustrated by Israel’s perceived intransigence, the international community is seeking ways to impose a deal and will broadly support the U.N. resolution.

Some will argue that it’s nothing new: Israel has faced extreme isolation in the past and has always been, as stated in the bible, a "nation dwelling alone." There is truth to this, but as recent events in the Middle East show, we are living in a different world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cognizant of the impending diplomatic defeat, has been casting about for a response, but realistic ideas are not presenting themselves. The Palestinian reunification declaration partially plays into Netanyahu’s hands. How can Israel negotiate with a unified Palestinian Authority, when Hamas is avowed to its destruction? It is a legitimate argument which finds resonance in Washington and some Western capitals, but which would have gained far greater support had Netanyahu not already squandered his international credibility. Painted into a corner by his own recalcitrance, domestic coalition politics, and Palestinian rejectionism, Netanyahu’s options were unenviably few. The important but belated steps he presented last week in the Knesset — stating that Israel will retain the settlement blocs, thereby implicitly indicating that it will forego most of the West Bank — were insufficient. The prime minister will follow up on his recent initiatives with a highly anticipated speech to Congress on Tuesday, but truth be told, there is probably no Israeli initiative that would be sufficient to solve the problem at this point. Sensing the tide having turned in their favor, the Palestinians appear unwilling to negotiate, let alone compromise.

In these circumstances, radical steps are needed. Nothing less than a major initiative, such as the following, will minimize the impending damage to Israel and place the onus on the Palestinians.

First, Israel should announce that it, too, will support the General Assembly resolution, with the proviso that the 1967 lines are a basis for negotiations, not the predetermined outcome, and as Netanyahu said this week, that Israel will retain the settlement blocs. The United States and Europe have long recognized the potential need for "minor border corrections" and may be willing to adopt this formula, which would be a setback for the Palestinians. By so doing, Israel would deflate the Palestinian achievement and align itself with Western policy. The true debate today is over the 4-6 percent of the West Bank that Israel will have to retain in order to keep 80 percent of the settlers. That should be a minor border correction.

Second, Israel should temporarily freeze settlements in exchange for a tabling of the General Assembly resolution and return to negotiations. In typical Bibi form, this would be too little, too late, done under pressure, rather than as an Israeli initiative, but the Palestinians would be hard-pressed to explain a preference for a declaratory victory over concrete change. Israel should also insist that Obama explicitly reaffirm George W. Bush’s letter of April 2004, which stated what everyone knows, that the settlement blocs will remain part of Israel, with compensatory land swaps. Obama’s disavowal of his predecessor’s commitment was an egregious error, substantively and as a precedent.

Third, Israel should declare its immediate willingness to negotiate with the new, unified Palestinian Authority on the terms of a provisional Palestinian state as long as it accepts the internationally accepted criteria: renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Israel’s right to exist and of the existing bilateral agreements. The Palestinians would be hard pressed to justify a refusal to even negotiate a concrete proposal such as this.

A diplomatic defeat at the General Assembly vote is still a foregone conclusion. The only question is how Israel positions itself for the ongoing diplomatic confrontation. But there are no easy choices for the prime minister: The above steps would undoubtedly lead to a political crisis in Israel and, at best, reduce the sting of diplomatic defeat. The current Israeli coalition, however, is in its third and usually final year. Netanyahu will have to balance electoral considerations with painful diplomatic realities.

There’s no way to stand up to a tsunami. The best you can hope for is to get out of the way.

Charles Freilich was a former deputy national security advisor in Israel and is a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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