Statehood first, followed by negotiations
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be re-inaugurated this week with the aim of achieving a Permanent Status Agreement that will allow for the coming into being of a Palestinian state. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s determination should be solely credited for this event, which sadly launches the political process up a blind alley.
Reaching a comprehensive agreement on permanent status is a monumental political endeavor. It means resolving issues that have been outstanding since 1948, including the status of refugees, borders, and Jerusalem, as well as bringing into being a Palestinian state and establishing the principles for its future relations with Israel. At the moment, the positions of the parties are far from bridgeable on all these matters.
Yet the fundamental impediment to reaching such an agreement is structural and institutional, and it is on the Palestinian side. Since the Hamas victory in Gaza in January 2006, the Palestinians do not have a parliament that can legitimately ratify an agreement, and Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t have a mandate to lead the PLO in negotiations on behalf of all Palestinians. The idea of holding a referendum is impractical given the situation in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. This is why negotiating a Permanent Status Agreement is an exercise in futility, likely to fail at great peril.
The alternative approach is for Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States to negotiate a 150-word United Nations Security Council resolution, leveraging the Palestinian motion in the UN to bring into being a Palestinian state in the West Bank with Israeli and American recognition. This requires a re-framing of the sequence of the political process: first to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and then to shape permanent status. Such a resolution would not only pin down a two-state reality, but will also allow Israel and the Palestinian state to negotiate bilaterally their future relations in areas such as security, water, and economics.
This is a bitter pill to swallow for both parties: for Israel, it entails establishing a Palestinian state without reaching an end-of-conflict agreement or capping Palestinian claims; for the Palestinians, it would mean statehood with weak guarantees regarding permanent status.
Such a motion to establish a Palestinian state through an act of recognition would require American diplomatic leadership in the form of back-to-back understandings with both Israel and the Palestinians regarding permanent status. In other words, Kerry’s leadership needs to be as creative as it is bold.
The present political process is drastically different from any previous rounds. While the Palestinians have never been weaker — due to the Arab Spring and given the breakaway of Gaza — Israel has never been stronger. Under such conditions, understandings are feasible, if Israel plays its cards in a benevolent and strategic manner.
In the 1930s, David Ben-Gurion framed the essence of Israel’s national security goal: to establish a sovereign Jewish majority. This idea legitimized Zionism’s territorial compromises of ancestral lands and the Jewish leadership’s acceptance of the two-state solution as recommended by the Peel Commission in 1937. Since then, there has been no viable alternative for Israel’s future. Annexation of the Palestinian people into Israel would compromise Israel’s Jewish majority, while continued control of the Palestinian population may jeopardize Israel’s democracy and long-term legitimacy.
Therefore, Israel has no choice but to move forward with Palestinian statehood and deal with the consequences. We may not have an opportunity to do so in more favorable conditions.