First the two states, then the solution

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

For some readers, the headline on this opinion piece could call into question either my sanity or my intellect – or both. Why, of all times, would a longtime editor-in-chief emeritus of a Jewish newspaper, especially one who generally tacks to the center-right on Israel and its security needs, advocate that Israel and the United States formally drop their objections to an independent Palestinian state and recognize such a state as a full member of the United Nations?  

A recent endorsement of recognizing a Palestinian state, by Halik Bar, a Labor Party member of the Knesset and chairman of the Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Israeli-Arab Conflict, reinforced my belief that the best way to a two-state solution is to get both states in place and then negotiate the other issues.

I have advocated Israeli and U.S. recognition of Palestine for many years and admit that this has been a very lonely tree limb on which to perch.  As this is written, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is serving a ninth year of his four-year term, has taken a number of extremely provocative actions that again call into question not only his leadership abilities but whether he truly desires to achieve an independent state.

Most recently, in defiance of both the United States and the European Union, Abbas formally joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) and has already filed formal charges against Israel of “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity” for its military response last summer to Hamas rocket attacks.  Whatever unfolds at the ICC, that horse is already out of the barn.  And by filing war crimes charges against the State of Israel, Abbas, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Fatah faction, both of which have boasted about killing thousands of innocent Israeli civilians over the years, is hardly in a position to point fingers at Israel on this topic.

More to the point, regarding his quest for international recognition as an independent state, Abbas has largely won the battle.  The Palestinian Authority first sought admission as a full member of the United Nations by going to the U.N. Security Council, where the threat of a U.S. veto blocked that route to statehood.  Undeterred, Abbas then appealed to the General Assembly, where a veto threat does not exist, and won overwhelming approval from a majority of U.N. members for formal recognition as a “nonmember observer state,” a status that it shares with the Vatican City State, or Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church.

Because of General Assembly approval, Abbas can legitimately claim to be the “president of the State of Palestine,” and in fact he was among the various heads of state and governments who were introduced as such at the past two openings of the United Nations annual sessions.  In addition, more and more states and parliaments have granted formal recognition to Palestine as a state, including Sweden.  The French Parliament has voted in favor of recognizing Palestine and, in a nonbinding resolution supported by separate majorities of all three major parties, the British Parliament recently supported such recognition.

Some have questioned whether the Palestinian Authority has the necessary traits to qualify as a state. It has jurisdiction over the West Bank, which has a population of 1.8 million and shares authority with Hamas over the Gaza Strip, which has a population of close to 2 million.  Compare the nearly 4 million people under the Palestinian Authority with various microstates such as Micronesia, the Maldive Islands or the Marshall Islands, which have populations less than that of St. Louis County and yet are full members of the United Nations.

In an opinion piece in the New York Jewish Week, the aforementioned Halik Bar stated that it is “time to recognize the Palestinian State.”  Bar writes:

“Let’s be frank.  Negotiations haven’t gone anywhere at all in the past two years under the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  If anything, the mistrust on both sides has even taken us several steps back, creating a sense of hopelessness among all those who wish to work for two states.”

Bar adds, persuasively, I believe:

“But there is a way to move forward.  As soon as Israel’s elections are decided, we must move forward.  Israel needs to take its destiny in its own hands and take bold, new steps. Here’s how.  First, we must recognize the Palestinian state, and then we should argue the borders.  Let’s name it, and turn the ‘Palestinian entity’ into a state, and then we can enter into the stormy border negotiations.”

Bar hit the nail right on the head.  All but the most extreme parties on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides officially favor a two-state solution, based on the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles signed by the leaders of Israel and the PLO in September 1993.  If that is the case, why put off the issue of statehood for Palestine to the very end of the negotiations?  Recognizing Palestine as a state now would elevate the peace talks between a formal State of Israel and a nonstate actor to negotiations between equal, independent states.

Historically, the two-state solution has been supported for nearly a century, dating back to the British Balfour Declaration of 1917, which endorsed the right of Jews to establish a “Homeland” in Palestine provided the rights of  non-Jews are protected; the Peel Commission Report of 1937; and the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947,  which called for two independent states in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab.  It is time to bring that persistent recommendation into reality.

By bringing Palestine into the United Nations promptly, it would subject the Palestinians to the same expectations and obligations under international law that all independent states are supposed to abide by:  renouncing the use of force and terrorism and entering into serious negotiations on the final borders, the status of refugees, settlements and of course, Jerusalem.  

Of course, these issues are daunting, but an agreement is much more likely to occur between equal independent states than between Israel and a loose coalition of terrorist groups.

It is legitimate to raise the question of Hamas as part of a “government of international unity” with the Palestinian Authority.  Hamas continues to be listed as a terrorist organization, and its charter continues to be not only anti-Israel and anti-peace, but outright anti-Semitic.  But under the terms of the national unity government, Hamas has agreed not to oppose any past or future agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In addition to the threat that Hamas would pose to any peace agreement is the parallel opposition by extremist elements in Israel, including militant elements in the settler movement and their supporters in ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox political parties. It is past time to  deny the right of  extreme opponents of a two-state solution to hold  the entire process hostage, and to let the moderate elements move toward a final and lasting peace between the Jewish State of Israel and an Arab State of Palestine.

As long as recognition of Palestine is withheld, the anti-peace elements in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority will continue to hold a final agreement hostage.  If Palestine is recognized now, none of those factions will be in a position to veto a two-state solution.

Would recognition of Palestine with nondefined borders be free of risks and frustrations?  Of course not, but that is not an excuse for Israel not taking the initiative and depriving the Palestinians of perpetual victimhood as a “stateless people.”  

As Bar points out, the status quo has only made peace prospects less likely.  The time for fresh thinking and bold action for Israel to regain the moral high ground is now.  It will never be easy to achieve a two-state solution, but it is better to start down that road sooner rather than later, when it may indeed become too late.