In the coming days, the Palestinian Authority will seek a vote in the United Nations General Assembly to recognize an independent state of Palestine. The result will be a diplomatic disaster.
The resolution will surely pass, and by a huge margin, with only the U.S., Israel and a handful of other countries against, and a larger number, including some in Europe, abstaining.
We believe in the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in an independent state that exists side by side with a secure Israel. Like most Palestinians and Israelis, we support a two-state solution. The problem isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. The painful truth is that the Israelis and the Palestinians do not have leaders wise enough to take the political risks that will be necessary to achieve an enduring peace.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe have mishandled their relations with both parties by raising expectations for progress toward peace, and then failing to follow through. Indeed, the current crisis over the Palestinian UN resolution is a piece of a much larger tragedy.
Some recent history is instructive. Shortly after assuming office, President Barack Obama, along with European leaders, began pushing Israelis and Arabs to take certain confidence-building measures to develop trust and create momentum for a resumption of fruitful negotiations. Israel was asked to freeze the building of settlements in the West Bank, and a number of moderate Arab countries were asked to demonstrate a willingness to accept Israel into the region -- by, for example, allowing Israeli airliners to fly over their territory, establishing low-level diplomatic offices in their capitals or agreeing to publicize meetings with Israeli officials.
However, the Arab nations, most notably Saudi Arabia, refused. At that point, Obama should have dropped the strategy and sought to start negotiations with no preconditions. Then, he could have simply blamed those Arab countries for failing to take risks necessary to achieve a settlement freeze.
Incredibly, the administration instead insisted on trying to persuade Israel to stop building settlements anyway, without success. Then, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, seeing the U.S. and Israel at odds, declared that if the settlements didn’t stop, he couldn’t enter negotiations. That’s how the current stalemate arose. Now the Israelis are prepared to return to the negotiating table, while the Palestinians have refused unless the Israelis stop the settlements.
Obama has repeatedly said that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is one of his highest priorities. It is an even higher priority for the Europeans. But no one has come up with a coherent strategy to restart peace talks. As a result, Obama has made less progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace than any administration since the early 1970s.
Indeed, it was Obama who, in his Sept. 23, 2010, speech to the General Assembly, originally raised the goal of admitting Palestine to the UN by September 2011. Abbas claims disingenuously that frustration with Obama’s failure to deliver on his “promise” and the accompanying stalemate over peace talks justifies the push for UN recognition.
Although we understand Abbas’s unhappiness with the outside world’s flawed diplomacy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dubious commitment to compromise for a lasting peace, in our view, the Palestinians have the most to lose by a push for recognition at the UN. The Palestinians may get a few days of satisfying political theater, but they will render more remote the chance of a future independent Palestine.
The problem with the UN vote is what happens the day after. Palestinians will soon see that nothing has changed on the ground, and this could spark a new uprising. The U.S. Congress is threatening to react to a UN vote by cutting off assistance to Palestinian security forces, which would increase the chances of terrorist attacks originating in the West Bank. And further isolating Israel would not make its leaders more amenable to compromise. That strategy has been tried, and it has failed again and again.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, acting on behalf of the Quartet -- the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the UN -- is still trying to head off a crisis by getting the parties to agree to restart negotiations. We wish him well but fear his efforts will be too little, too late.
The Quartet should plan to limit the damage that the Palestinian initiative could cause. Tomorrow, we will suggest ways to do so.
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