Today is November 29, 2012, 65 years to the day that the United Nations voted to partition British Mandated Palestine into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. The phrase I have grown to saying most often in reference to this simultaneously happy and sad day is that “whereas the Jews accepted the plan, the Arabs categorically rejected it.” I use the word simultaneous because where I cheer and celebrate the first instance of Israel’s inception I also mourn the rejection by the Arab nations at the time, for it was not just a Jewish state they were rejecting, but an Arab-Palestinian one as well.
Since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, where Israel dealt a decisive blow to Hamas, temporarily ending its reign of terror on southern and central Israel, the world’s attention in the Middle East has shifted to the other Palestinian faction, that of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Angst, frustration, and much attention have been expressed over the last few days to Abbas’ intention to seek non-member status at the U.N. in the next few hours. With so many pundits, analysts and experts contributing their two-cents to why the Palestinian U.N. bid is a good or a bad thing, for Israel, for the Palestinians, for the world, I figured I could add my own thoughts to the discussion. And to put it simply, I don’t know if this is good or bad, I just think it’s been a poorly missed opportunity.
Now I don’t disagree with the Israeli political establishment, as well as numerous world leaders such as U.S. President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, when they iterate what has been understood for decades, that Palestinian statehood can only be truly attained through direct negotiations with Israel. But I also believe there is a big difference between U.N. non-member recognition and the ultimate goal of independent and sovereign statehood.
With all the negativity surrounding the U.N. bid I am not surprised that the political opportunity presented with it has been missed. Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government had the chance to change public perception about this political move from the very beginning. It is no secret that Abbas has been determined to succeed in his mission to attain a heightened U.N. status for the Palestinian delegation, beginning a year ago with his failed bid to the U.N. Security Council and now with his efforts with the General Assembly.
It has often been said about Israel that “Only the Right can make peace”, well if Prime Minister Netanyahu had truly followed his political prowess, it is possible a return to peace negotiations could have been much closer on the horizon. Why do I say this? Because I think Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government should have been the first ones to offer Mahmoud Abbas their hand in recognition. Just as David Ben Gurion and the Jews of Palestine accepted U.N. Partition on November 29, 1947, Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel should be accepting Palestine on November 29, 2012. In doing so, Israel would be reaffirming her staunch commitment to that original idea, two states for two peoples.
But the real political victory would come with global support. In getting ahead of the U.N. bid, Prime Minister Netanyahu could have garnered positive attention in offering to recognize Palestine’s non-member status in the U.N. in exchange for a commitment by President Mahmoud Abbas to finally return to the negotiating table without preconditions. It would have been an enticing offer, with potential backing by the United States and the Quartet. It would have also been a very bold move, one with high risk but high reward. In giving diplomatic recognition, Prime Minister Netanyahu could have restarted the stalled negotiations and generated new life into the peace process. In recognizing the delegation’s increased status, Israel would also be recognizing the Palestinian people. It would then be incumbent on the Palestinians, their allies and friends in the Arab world to finally recognize the Jewish State of Israel. And whether you believe it possible or not the Palestinians would follow through on such a proposition does not negate the potential impact of such an agreement could hold.
Now let us take a look at the practical implications of this political move by Abbas. An upgrade in U.N. status would be a tremendous morale boost for Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people. I am not Palestinian and I could never truly understand what it means to be Palestinian, but I imagine that finally being recognized by the highest international body in the world must count for something. It is not simply garnering appropriate or inappropriate amounts of world media attention; it is much more than just cameras and opinion pieces. Having been observers for a number of decades, U.N. recognition means that the Palestinian people can feel they are finally part of the community of nations, if not yet part of the community of states and countries.
Another issue is the opening to international bodies that non-member state status will offer the Palestinians. Haviv Rettig Gur this morning analyzed the implications of the Palestinians bringing Israel before the International Criminal Court. But for all the blustering and worrying about a new form of “lawfare” being brought upon Israel, have we conveniently forgotten that the Palestinians could then be brought forth before the court? As a non-member state, they too could be subjected to tribunals for their decades-long supplying and support of terrorist activities against non-combatant civilians in Israel. If this path is taken it would subject the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to a new kind of conflict, one fought in the courtroom without any end in sight, while Hamas and extremist elements continue to gain strength on the ground, where the real future of the region counts. It would be a costly and unproductive maneuver, one completely detached from Abbas’ eventual goal of statehood.
Ultimately however I am skeptical of what this political move truly accomplishes. As one of my best friends remarked to me, “This would be nice if it were a real step toward something tangible. But it seems they are doing this just for doing its sake. What process are they starting? It’s like fixing the carburetor in a junkyard car but having no other pieces to replace.” And I don’t believe he is far off. Whether the U.N. bid will be for the best or worst remains to be seen. At the end of the day all I truly see is a missed opportunity, for both Israel and the Palestinians, for both Prime Minister Netanyahu and for President Mahmoud Abbas. 65 years ago today the world voted in favor of two states for two peoples, a solution that most of the world still wishes to believe in. Today could have been one of celebration; for Israel to take bold steps for the sake of peace, as she has done time and again in the past. And for the Palestinians and Arabs, to finally say categorically “Yes” to both Palestine AND Israel, when for 65 years all we’ve heard is “No.”