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Steve Sheffey

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The Path to Palestinian Statehood

Posted: 11/29/11 04:14 PM ET

The time is ripe for the Palestinians to ride the crest of change sweeping the Arab world. A democratic state of Palestine is well within their grasp. To achieve it, they need only follow the successful Jewish model that led to the rebirth of Israel following World War II.

First, the Palestinians must prioritize statehood over utopianism. The state promised to the Jewish people by Great Britain under the Balfour Declaration comprised all of Mandatory Palestine: what is today Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel. Britain severed Jordan from the land in 1922. The Jewish state of Israel recognized by the UN further severed the Jewish homeland by excluding the West Bank and its holy sites. It also excluded Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Yet the Jews accepted a state with truncated borders, none of the West Bank, and none of Jerusalem because having a state was more important than the boundaries of that state. Had the Jews said "no" in 1948, there might be no Israel today. Had the Arabs said "yes" in 1948, Jerusalem would be an internationally administered city and there would be an independent Arab state on the West Bank.

Time can't be frozen. Israel can't be expected to deny its people the opportunity to live in parts of their homeland because some day the Palestinians might get serious about peace. The reality is that certain communities on the other side of the Green Line, especially the blocs around Jerusalem, are permanent. That's why the borders of a Palestinian state will not be the 1967 lines, but will be based on mutually agreed upon land swaps and security arrangements to ensure Israel's safety.

Of the millions of refugees displaced in the aftermath of World War II, only the Palestinians remain unsettled. The Arabs control a sparsely populated land mass hundreds of time larger than Israel and could have resettled them. The idea that the Palestinians are somehow entitled to return (or in many cases, come for the first time) to Israel and overrun the world's only Jewish state is a nonstarter. Insisting on what amounts to Israel's destruction is inconsistent with the dream of creating an independent Palestinian state.

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and is not a settlement. Had Jordan not attacked Israel in 1967, Jerusalem would not today be Israel's undivided capital, but Israel cannot now be expected to reverse the realization of a 2,000 year-old dream. The Palestinians will have to accept some type of shared sovereignty.

What will the Palestinians get in return? A state.

Second, the Palestinians must accept Israel's offer to negotiate. The Palestinians should be looking for reasons to enter into negotiations, not excuses to avoid negotiations. The settlements are irrelevant. The way to stop settlement growth is to negotiate a final status agreement. New outposts in Judea and Samaria under construction today would not exist if the Palestinians had accepted the Clinton/Barak proposals in 2000 or Ehud Olmert's proposals in 2008. These proposals didn't give the Palestinians everything they wanted, but they came close, and most important, they would have resulted in the creation of a Palestinian state.

Settlements in the Sinai did not stop Egypt and Israel from signing a peace agreement. Israel removed the settlers by force. Settlements in Gaza did not stop Israel from unilaterally withdrawing. Israel removed the settlements by force. The PLO was formed in 1964, three years before Israel gained control over the West Bank in a defensive war against Jordan. The obstacle to peace from 1964 to 1967, when there were no settlements, is the same obstacle to peace that led to the creation of the PLO: Arab refusal to accept the permanent reality of a Jewish state of Israel coupled with Arab refusal to negotiate in good faith for an agreement that will once and for all end the conflict.

Settlements in the West Bank will not stop Israel and the Palestinians from reaching a peace agreement. But Palestinian refusal to negotiate will. Instead of attempting to bypass negotiations by seeking UN recognition of a non-existent state, the Palestinians should prove they are serious about their aspirations by negotiating with Israel.

The Palestinians frequently complain about the indignity of occupation. Many of the hardships imposed by Israel result from Israel's legitimate duty to defend its citizens from terrorism. The occupation, and all the indignities that come with it, would end the day a Palestinian state is agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinians. If the Palestinians want to end the occupation, they should agree to negotiate in good faith with Israel.

But what about Israel's good faith? How do the Palestinians know that Prime Minister Netanyahu is sincere? They don't. So why not sit down, negotiate, and let the world see who is sincere and who isn't? The Palestinians have nothing to lose and everything to gain -- assuming their goal is a state of their own rather than the destruction of Israel.

Finally, the Palestinians need an Altalena moment. The Altalena was a ship run by the Irgun, a pre-state militia, laden with badly needed weapons for Israel's War of Independence. The Irgun insisted on controlling the allocation of these weapons. In 1948, Israel's Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, ordered the destruction of the Altalena before it could dock to make clear that Israel was one state with one army and one set of leaders, not a hodgepodge of quasi-independent militias. Ben-Gurion did what he had to do, even if it meant killing Jews and losing valuable weapons, to create a state based on the rule of law.

Sixty-three years later, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has chosen to negotiate with Hamas rather than with Israel. Hamas is a terrorist organization that openly seeks Israel's destruction and routinely terrorizes Israeli civilians. Ben-Gurion risked civil war to ensure a viable state. If Abbas is serious about creating a Palestinian state, as opposed to creating a united front against Israel, he needs to emulate Ben-Gurion and show the world that certain tactics and ideologies will not be tolerated by a Palestinian state.

Most Israelis understand that Israel cannot indefinitely remain Jewish and democratic while retaining the West Bank. Israel continues to strive for peace not because the Arab Palestinians have a better legal, historic, or moral claim to the land -- after all, there has never been an Arab nation of Palestine and the concept of a unique Arab Palestinian people was unknown before the 20th century -- but because trading land for peace is in Israel's best interests, and most Israelis know it. The Palestinians should seize this opportunity. What they want is in Israel's best interests to give. But Israel can't give if there is no one sitting at the table across from them to take.

There is no guarantee that the current Israeli willingness to trade land for peace will continue indefinitely. The longer the Palestinians tarry, the more validation they give to those within Israel opposed to any territorial compromise. The Palestinians only encourage hardliners on the right by refusing to negotiate. The best answer to those who claim that Palestinian leadership is not serious about peace is for the Palestinians to prove that they are. Nothing would do more to undercut the credibility of those who oppose a two-state solution than for the Palestinian Authority to enter into unconditional negotiations with Israel.

Peace can be achieved tomorrow if the Arab world accepts the permanent reality of a Jewish state of Israel today. A people who genuinely wanted a state of their own would let nothing stand in the way of negotiations. Israel accepted several partitions of its national homeland before achieving independence in 1948. Israel remains willing to cede parts of its national homeland because Israel values peace over land. If Palestinian leadership accepts the same paradigm, the dream of peace will become reality