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The Palestinians: Once Again Missing an Opportunity?

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Abba Eban, Israel's late and legendary statesman, famously said nearly 40 years ago that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

He was right.

Most recently, in 2000, the Palestinians, presented with a breakthrough two-state plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, joined by U.S. President Bill Clinton, spurned it. Rather than offer a counter-proposal, they simply walked away, triggering a deadly new intifada in the process.

As Clinton recounts in his book, My Life, he received congratulations from Arafat three days before the American leader left office. "You are a great man," Arafat told him. "I am not a great man," Clinton replied. "I am a failure. And you made me one."

In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was determined to pull Israeli soldiers and settlers out of Gaza. He tried to do so in coordination with Palestinian leaders. But Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's long-time deputy who succeeded him, was AWOL, so Sharon went it alone.

The result was that, for the first time in Gaza's history, local residents had the chance to govern themselves. Within two years, however, Gaza was ruled by Hamas, which was more focused on Israel's destruction than Gaza's construction. What might have become the Middle East's Singapore more closely came to resemble Somalia.

And in 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went even further than Barak and Clinton. Abbas himself acknowledged that the Israeli leader's deal, including territorial swaps, amounted to the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank. But there was no deal to be had. Once again, the Palestinian leadership would not embrace the extended hand.

Unlike baseball, however, the rule "three strikes and you're out" doesn't apply to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is saying that he, too, fully accepts the concept of a two-state solution, is prepared to make "painful compromises" for a deal, and is open to "creative solutions" on Jerusalem. Indeed, as a goodwill gesture, he took the unprecedented step last year of freezing Israeli settlement-building for ten months, only to get nothing in return from the Palestinian Authority.

Actually, it gets still worse. Not only will Abbas not sit down with Netanyahu, but he has now declared that his goal is to circumvent direct talks and seek UN recognition of a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state.

That would be a disaster. It would not advance the peace process. To the contrary, it would set it back dramatically.

After all, a sustainable peace deal can only be struck through direct talks between the parties themselves. If the Palestinians think they can create a fait accompli by doing an end-run and seeking to use the UN as their validator, they are wrong.

The UN does not have the power to recognize states, only to admit them. And that process requires the Security Council to recommend membership. The United States has already made clear, to its credit, that it will exercise its veto to block this path. That leaves the General Assembly, where the Palestinians have an automatic majority, thanks to the Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement. While the General Assembly can seek to elevate the Palestinian status at the UN short of full membership and adopt symbolic resolutions, it cannot create new facts on the ground.

So, if the Palestinians nonetheless pursue this path, what will they get? Momentary satisfaction, perhaps, at the General Assembly, but then there will be no actual change -- a sure-fire formula for disappointment and unrest. Meanwhile, Israel will conclude that it has no credible partner on the other side and consider unilateral steps of its own. And the U.S. Congress will be compelled to think twice before continuing its aid to the Palestinians, which, incidentally, the Congressional Budget Office recently determined to be among the world's highest per capita recipients.

In other words, if the Palestinian Authority is serious about a peace deal and the first chance in history of sovereignty, then it is high time to abandon the unilateral strategy, focus on restarting talks with Israel based on a two-state solution, confront head-on the tough issues, and, not least, reconsider its ill-conceived accord with Hamas, a group designated by both the European Union and U.S. as a terrorist organization.

No, it is admittedly not an easy path, any more than it is for Israel, which will be asked to take enormous, even unprecedented, risks for an agreement, given its challenging neighborhood and small size -- it was only nine miles wide at its narrowest point until 1967, which for Eban evoked "insecurity and danger" and, as a result, "a memory of Auschwitz. "

Apropos, the '67 boundaries reflected nothing more than the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan, following the failed attempt by five Arab armies to destroy Israel at birth. Jordan egregiously violated that agreement by annexing the West Bank and denying Israel access to its holiest sites in Jerusalem, thus effectively rendering the agreement null and void.

But there is no other way than face-to-face talks, at least if the goal is peace. Will the Palestinians seize this chance, or once again prove Eban right on never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

For more information, visit ajc.org.