How to checkmate the Palestinian gambit

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

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

There have been oceans of ink, forests of paper and countless electronic communications about last week’s drama at the United Nations, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas presented a formal request to the United Nations Security Council for an independent State of Palestine to be admitted to the U.N. as a full member.

Abbas later addressed the U.N. General Assembly, where his speech was interrupted by several standing ovations, despite the fact that it contained the usual invectives against Israel and almost nothing regarding the peaceful intentions of the P.A.

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who have had their public and private differences over the past two years – were literally “on the same page” regarding the Abbas gambit. Both were steadfastly opposed to the Palestinian attempt to do “an end run” around the internationally sanctioned peace process through the Quartet of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the U.N. and go directly to the Security Council with a statehood petition. The Obama administration has made it clear that it would exercise its right to veto if the Palestinian statehood bid came to a vote among the 15-member Security Council. If the bid fails there, Abbas and his aides have indicated that they would go directly to the General Assembly, which could grant the Palestinians recognition as a “non-member independent state,” a status held now only by the Vatican’s Holy See, and previously by Switzerland before it became a full member.

So, what is the best way to checkmate the Palestinian “gambit,” the chess term often used for its efforts to obtain statehood through the U.N. route?

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One option is to oppose the bid for statehood at all costs, including the veto at the level of the U.N. Security Council and an all-out battle on the floor of the General Assembly, where the Palestinians are believed to have more than enough votes for passage of a “non-member” independent state.

Another possibility would be to match the boldness of the Palestinian move and find a way to embrace it. There are thoughtful – and persuasive – voices across the full spectrum that favor allowing the Palestinians recognition by the U.N. as an independent state.

An article by Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner in the Sept. 17 New York Times takes note of the desire by the Palestinians for a new approach in which a Palestinian state is “first recognized globally and then two states, Israel and Palestine, negotiate final details.” A letter to the editor to the Times two days later, by Joel E. Davidson makes the cogent point, “Admission of Palestine to the United Nations would…imply Palestine’s recognition of Israel” and could actually help the peace process “by opening up new channels for communication and possibly providing some additional basis for United Nations oversight of the peace process.”

To be sure, the best way for an independent Palestinian State to emerge would be as a result of a successful conclusion to the peace process. But if the repeatedly stated goal of that process is a “two- state solution, in which an independent Jewish State of Israel and an independent Arab State of Palestine would live side-by-side in peace and security,” why not get the statehood issue on an equal footing sooner rather than later?

All three major political parties in Israel – the liberal Labor Party of Ehud Barak, the centrist Kadima Party of Tzipi Livni and even the hawkish conservative Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu are on record as favoring a two-state solution. If so, what is the advantage of holding Palestinian statehood hostage to the vagaries of the protracted negotiations, which have dragged on unproductively for so many years?

Of course admission of the State of Palestine as a full member of the U.N. would give the Palestinians and their many anti-Israel allies even more “clubs” with which to constantly hit Israel, including greater access to the International Criminal Court, where they could formally bring charges against Israelis for “war crimes.” But that possibility already exists within the limited “observer” status that the P.A. currently has at the U.N.

Why not take the approach of “two states now,” and formal agreement on borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security arrangements within a fixed time frame, as suggested by French President Nicolas Sarkozy? The French leader has suggested that a fixed timetable be negotiated which would include formal recognition of Palestinian independence, linked to immediate resumption of negotiations between the parties under the umbrella of the Quartet, whose official negotiator is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is regarded as fair minded towards both Israel and the Palestinians.

If Palestine becomes a state, the P.A. could no longer play the “victim card” as “stateless victims.” The negotiations would then commence between the very two independent Jewish and Palestinian states envisioned in the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan which Israel accepted, but the Arab states and Palestinians rejected. If Palestinian recognition was accomplished during the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, who has foresworn terrorism, it would marginalize the terrorist group Hamas which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007 and which made it clear that it opposed the Abbas statehood bid, as did the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah. Abba Eban, the late Israeli Foreign Minister is often quoted as observing that the “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Maybe that has been the case until now. Abbas did seize the “opportunity” to gain official recognition by the United Nations, which many states have used over the past 63 years. Those who favor a two-state solution should fully explore whether the best way towards a “win-win” end game of the Israel-Palestine dilemma, is to embrace the two-states now, and negotiate the details over the next 12 months.

There are of course many risks to the above approach. But to do nothing amidst the volatile and unpredictable “Arab Spring” contains even more risks. We should, as Eban also suggested, go “not backward to belligerency, but forward to peace.”

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