Read Robert Satloff’s counterpoint here.
At 4 p.m. on May 14, 1948, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion took to the podium in the auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum to make a bold pronouncement. The preceding days had been filled with long and difficult deliberations among Zionist leaders over whether to move ahead with it in the face of American opposition. Eventually, Ben-Gurion mustered enough support among his colleagues to carry the day. On that fateful Friday afternoon, the 5th of Iyar on the Hebrew calendar, he stood and declared with a sense of great historical moment, “We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be known as the State of Israel.”
Just more than a month ago, an assembly of dozens of Israeli intellectuals, scholars and public figures gathered in the same spot to declare their support for recognition of a Palestinian state. Just as the land of Israel was “the birthplace of the Jewish people,” so, too, the land of Palestine was “the birthplace of the Palestinian people.” The time had come, they insisted, to end the decades-long struggle of the Palestinians to achieve national self-determination in their own state.
And just last week, President Barack Obama, addressing an audience at the U.S. State Department, shifted American policy from tacit to explicit affirmation of the territorial contours of a Palestinian state. The boundaries of that state should be based on the boundaries demarcating the State of Israel prior to the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, which is to say, the boundaries established by the 1949 armistice agreement that brought to an end the bitter hostilities between Israel and her Arab neighbors. But — and this point was ignored by many of his critics following the speech — Obama added that there should be appropriate swaps of land to allow for the inclusion of a number of settlement blocs to remain on Israeli soil.
What Obama proposed is hardly novel. The president simply reinforced what every serious peace proposal has put on the table since the Oslo accords in 1993: two states, Israel and Palestine, with the 1967 demarcation as the basis for a border between them. Obama’s formulation is no different from the Clinton parameters put forth in the Camp David peace negotiations of 2000. There, the Americans proposed that “the western border would be based on the 1967 lines, but would be modified as necessary.” The author of that account is none other than Dennis Ross, veteran Middle East diplomat and current senior White House adviser, who, under President Clinton, actively sought to persuade both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to accept the 1967 border (with land swaps).
It seems somewhat naïve and a bit disingenuous to cry wolf now, as if no Israeli had ever heard of the proposal. In fact, at least two Israeli Prime Ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, agreed to the language of 1967 boundaries with modifications. The hew and cry that has arisen from the current Israeli government and its American supporters reveals a remarkable capacity, as Abba Eban famously lamented of the Palestinians, to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Time is very short; the clock on Israel’s existence as a viable, democratic, Jewish state is running out. For that reason, it is important, but not sufficient, to recognize the 1967 border as the basis for a two-state solution. It is also imperative for the American government, along with the State of Israel and the American Jewish community, to announce their support for Palestinian statehood.
Of course, skeptics remind us of the new instability induced by the Arab spring. They point to the tentative reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah as a warning sign. Some even take the rhetorically dangerous step of referring to the 1967 borders as “Auschwitz borders,” a point that has been defused with requisite sobriety and expertise by Michael Berenbaum (see below).
But neither history nor justice is on the side of those who resist Palestinian independence. It will come about, now or later, bloodlessly or violently. America — and, even more significantly, Israel — should join the growing number of countries the world over that endorse Palestinian statehood. And they should do so for a mix of principled and tactical reasons.
First, an Israeli-American initiative to endorse statehood would require the Palestinian side to assume responsibility and control over its own destiny. Israel would no longer find itself in its usual defensive state, warding off accusations of apartheid while its 44-year occupation of the West Bank continues. America, for its part, would escape the regular condemnation it faces in the Arab and Muslim worlds for doing little to advance the peace process and Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, support for statehood, which is expected to be discussed at the United Nations in September, would place the newly reconciled Palestinians at a crossroads. Either they, and especially Hamas, accept Israel and the idea of a two-state solution or the ongoing effort to gain U.N. recognition of statehood would be exposed as insincere, misguided or premature.
Second, Palestinian statehood is an essential condition of Israel’s survival as a Jewish state — a point made at the AIPAC conference on Monday by Kadima leader Tzipi Livini. To the extent that this remains an ideal for most Israelis and for their sadly declining numbers of friends in the world, then disengagement from the West Bank and the rise of an independent Palestine must proceed without further delay. The longer Israel retains its entrenched network of settlements in the occupied territories, the more unlikely it is that it will ever be able to uproot them. And if it is unable to uproot the settlements, then the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will become one polity, in which Jews will soon be outnumbered. At that point, Israel would be able to survive only by dispensing with the pretense of democracy.
Third, supporting Palestinian statehood is just. The Zionists fulfilled their grand goal of restoring the Jewish people from exile to homeland. In the course of the Jews’ own triumphant march toward sovereignty in 1948, the Palestinians were sent from homeland to exile. They have dwelt in their own stateless condition ever since. Israel is not solely responsible for this predicament; the Arab states, the international community and Palestinian leaders all share in the blame. But Israel can and must play a major role in rectifying the historical injustice done to the Palestinians, who deserve to live in peace, security and economic prosperity.
For Israel to declare support for Palestinian statehood in the current environment is a calculated risk. But it is the right and just thing to do. And it is among the best of the dwindling policy options available to Israel to escape the increasing isolation that will likely come after the U.N. debate in September.
Today, 63 years after the State of Israel was founded, we are reminded of the possibility of national revival. The lessons of Israel’s own triumph must now be applied to those with whose fate it is inextricably entwined: the Palestinians. Should Israel fail to heed those lessons, it will find itself on the wrong side of history.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and chairs the History Department at UCLA.