It becomes more clear every day that Binyamin Netanyahu's government is terrified by the prospect that the Palestinians are planning to unilaterally declare a state later this year. In fact, it is safe to say that no other proposed Palestinian action has ever shaken up any Israeli government the way that the idea of a unilateral declaration has.
According to Haaretz, Prime Minister Netanyahu is so frightened at the prospect of a Palestinian declaration that he is considering withdrawing Israel forces (not settlers, of course) from the West Bank as an inducement to prevent the Palestinians from acting.
Netanyahu is weighing a withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces troops from the West Bank and a series of other measures to block the "diplomatic tsunami" that may follow international recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders at the United Nations General Assembly in September. Netanyahu's fear is well-placed.
Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit describes what would follow a unilateral Palestinian declaration:
At that moment, every Israeli apartment in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood will become illegal. Every military base in the West Bank will be contravening the sovereignty of an independent UN member state. The Palestinians will not be obligated to accept demilitarization and peace and to recognize the occupation.
That is true. But it is also true that an internationally recognized Palestinian state, with a flag flying at the United Nations, would level the playing field for negotiations.
Ever since Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began in 1993, they have been fundamentally unbalanced. On one side is the most powerful military power in the Middle East, backed to the hilt by the United States. On the other is a stateless people who control no territory, have no military, and are barely surviving economically.
That would change once a Palestinian state is declared. Of course, that new state would be weak and vulnerable, but it will have international law on its side, just as Israel does within the pre-'67 borders. Diplomatically, the two sides would finally be equal; negotiations between the two sides will be government-to-government, not between a powerful state and a supplicant.
Negotiations would have to take place simply because a Palestinian declaration does not, in and of itself, resolve such issues as mutual security, refugees, Jerusalem, and the rest. It simply ensures that such negotiations will, at long last, be serious.
Of course, a September declaration is no done deal. The Palestinians will first need to achieve unity so that the Palestinian state includes both the West Bank and Gaza. Although the International Monetary Fund now says that the West Bank alone already could constitute a viable Palestinian state, that is true only economically and not politically. A viable Palestinian state must include Gaza and be contiguous.
Palestinian unity will be difficult to achieve for many reasons, including the deep personal animosity between the leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions. An important first step toward unity would be for Hamas to adhere to a full cease-fire with Israel starting now (the last thing the Palestinian Authority wants is to declare a state that is at war with Israel). In fact, during the past week Hamas has been sending feelers to Israel about ending the violence between the two sides, which Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says must be ignored.
It is not that Israel wants the strikes and counter-strikes to continue, it is that Netanyahu, Lieberman and company understand that a permanent cease-fire will foster the Palestinian unity necessary for a declaration of statehood. In fact, it is beginning to appear that preventing a unilateral declaration is Israel's primary diplomatic goal, one that informs all its policies relating to Palestinians. (Palestinians, for their part, understand that the very fact that the prospect of a declaration makes Israel so nervous indicates that it is precisely the right strategy to achieve a state and peace with Israel.)
Of course, the Obama administration is likely to do everything it can to thwart the Palestinians' plans. AIPAC is already working on Congressional letters calling on Obama to stop the declaration and, no doubt, an overwhelming majority of the House and Senate will sign on. (The 2012 election is looming and candidates and incumbents are highly focused on fundraising).
The good news is that the United States cannot use its veto to prevent Palestinian recognition by the United Nations. For Palestine, as for Israel in 1947, it is the General Assembly that confers statehood and not the Security Council. The administration would have to use the other tools in its kit to thwart the declaration; it has no veto.
On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, the administration will recognize that a unilateral declaration of statehood could be the one device that would achieve its oft-stated goal in the Middle East: "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security."
The American people seem to be getting it. According to a poll released Monday by the right-wing Israel Project, only 51% of Americans oppose a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence. 54% favor a Palestinian state achieved through negotiations.
For those familiar with polling on matters relating to Israelis and Palestinians, the results are startling. The percentage of support for the Israeli position is usually in the high 70s, while support for the Palestinians is in the teens. Suddenly there is a major shift, and this in a poll sponsored by an organization that clearly did not want to see findings like these.
Perhaps the Obama administration will come around too.
The United States should support the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, followed by serious negotiations. The alternative has been tried over and over again and it always fails. Why not try something that may actually achieve peace and security for two peoples who, like everyone else, are entitled to it? It is time for President Obama to deliver on the promise he made in Cairo to use his authority not to defend the deadly status quo but to end it.