If the Palestinians go ahead with their plans to declare a state later this year, the United States should recognize it.
There really is no good reason not to.
After all, ever since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson, presidents from both parties have expressed support for the return of the occupied territories in exchange for peace. No nation, other than Israel itself, recognizes any of that land -- including Arab East Jerusalem -- as part of Israel. And the United Nations, which issued Israel its birth certificate in 1947, appears ready to do the same for the State of Palestine this summer.
It was once widely assumed that creation of the Palestinian state would be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. No more. The final nail in the direct-negotiations coffin was driven by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when he coldly rejected President Obama's offer of an extra $3.5 billion in U.S. aid in exchange for a 90-day settlement freeze.
Netanyahu couldn't even bring himself to explicitly reject an offer he considered so contemptible. He just left it (and President Obama) dangling in the wind while he issued more building permits for settlers and expulsion orders for Palestinians.
It is now clear that although Israel would like to achieve peace with the Palestinians, it is not willing to pay much of a price for it. It will not even negotiate over Arab East Jerusalem. It intends to keep not only the West Bank settlements but also the lands and fields near those settlements -- plus the settlers-only highways that connect the settlements. It will not free blockaded Gaza from its grip, maintaining full control over its airspace, seaports, and land entry points.
Israel may consider giving up some land that is heavily populated by Palestinians and that no settler desires for his own. But it will not agree to a contiguous West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state, as is obvious from its demand that the mega-settlement of Ariel, smack-dab in the middle of the West Bank, become part of Israel.
No wonder the Palestinian Authority has given up on negotiations. It is unwilling to negotiate the terms of its own surrender -- not when there are other alternatives.
The best alternative is a U.S.-brokered settlement that would establish a State of Palestine, with contiguous borders, alongside Israel. East Jerusalem would be the Palestinian capital. In exchange, Israel would get the two things it has always insisted are the only demands it makes of the Arabs: secure, recognized borders and security guarantees from the United States. (The security of the Palestinian state would also be guaranteed.)
This is not some pie-in-the-sky idea. As early as 2002, the entire Arab world signed on to the Saudi plan (later renamed the Arab League Initiative), which offered Israel not only recognition and peace but full normalization in exchange for establishment of the State of Palestine. The Palestinians immediately accepted the offer. Israel ignored it, followed by the United States.
The few changes since then have been for the worse. The current Israeli government has no interest in any plan that requires withdrawal. As for the United States, it can be expected to be even more timid than usual in the two years prior to election day 2012. Additionally, U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine is in the hands of White House aide Dennis Ross, who unambiguously supports Israeli positions on pretty much everything.
This all means that the Palestinians may have to take matters into their own hands by unilaterally declaring the establishment of a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem with the blessing of the United Nations.
Some say that a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood would lead to war (much as Israel's unilateral declaration of statehood led to war in 1948). That could be true.
A furious Israel could abolish the Palestinian Authority, assume direct control over all the territories and attempt to govern millions of Palestinians without the assistance of the exceedingly compliant Palestinian Authority.
But that would surely lead to the Palestinians going back to the United Nations and demanding the right not to statehood but to full citizenship in Israel -- including the right to vote. That is the last thing Israel wants -- a Palestinian majority in the Jewish state.
More likely, Israel would have to negotiate with the new Palestinian state as one government negotiates with another. No longer would the Palestinians be beggars asking for a few crumbs at the table. No, suddenly the playing field would be leveled, at least somewhat.
In the context of those state-to-state negotiations, the two sides could decide on permanent borders and security arrangements that satisfy both sides. More than likely, some Israeli settlements would remain in exchange for an equal amount of territory inside Israel. The negotiators would also decide on the modalities of sharing Jerusalem as the capital of two states.
There are two significant obstacles to this proposal. The first is that, pressured by AIPAC and its congressional cutouts, the United States could announce in advance that it will block (with a veto, if necessary) any unilateral declaration. Those who support an end to the conflict should start working now on deterring the Obama administration from announcing that it will, despite all its promises, veto Palestinian statehood to please the lobby.
The second problem is the nature of the two Palestinian governments that control the West Bank and Gaza today. Neither is democratic. Both are authoritarian. There is no indication that either would improve should statehood come into being.
That is why following establishment of the state, the entire Palestinian people would have to vote for new leadership. It is safe to assume that under free and fair elections (closely monitored), neither Hamas nor Fatah would win outright. The only thing most Palestinians like about Fatah is that it's not Hamas; the only thing most like about Hamas is that it's not Fatah.
But first things first. The United States should either lay a plan on the table and demand its implementation, or the Palestinians should declare full independence, with negotiations with Israel to follow. And the United States should support them.
Forty-four years of occupation is enough, for both Palestinians and Israelis. And it's time for America to keep its promises.
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