To establish its independence, Israel had to win a war against the combined might of the Arab nations in 1948. The Arab failure to destroy the nascent Jewish state became known, in Orwellian Arab vernacular, as “Nakba,” a catastrophe. For the next 20 years, neither Jordan nor any of the other Arab states even spoke of giving Palestinian Arabs their independence, concentrating instead on boycotting and delegitimizing Israel.
Only some years after the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel, beating back the annilihation attempt by Egypt, Jordan and Syria, found itself in possession of the West Bank and Gaza Strip did the Arabs suddenly develop a passion for Palestinian statehood.
Even though Arab national aspirations in Palestine are little more than a century old and developed in response to Zionism, Israel, whose Jewish roots in the land go back thousands of years, repeatedly has sought a negotiated settlement so that Israel and a Palestinian state could live side by side in peace. Generous Israeli offers were made at Camp David and Taba under President Clinton’s aegis in 2000-01, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walked out on the talks. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled all Israelis out of Gaza, but instead of developing into an embryonic Palestinian state, the region became a Hamas-ridden launching pad for anti-Israel terror.
Subsequent Israeli attempts to restart negotiations have met a wall of Palestinian refusal to recognize it as a Jewish state and insistence on a refugee “right of return” to Israel proper—both positions clearly intended to keep up the conflict, not solve it.
Rebuffing the very idea of a Jewish state means the Palestinians are not ready to concede that Israel was the place of origin of the Jewish people, the focus of its prayers and dreams for centuries and the center of a renewed Jewish people today in the wake of the Holocaust. Indeed, Palestinian negotiators seem to deny that Jews constitute a people at all.
Combining this with the demand that anyone claiming to be a descendant of a Palestinian who left what is now Israel should be allowed to return confirms that the Palestinian strategy is indeed to snuff out the Jewish state demographically, turning Israel into a second Palestinian state alongside the one to be created in Gaza and the West Bank.
Hamas, classified by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden and has categorically rejected any acceptance of Israel. Coming at a time when the Palestinian Authority is allied with Hamas, passage of a U.N. resolution backing the creation of a Palestinian state could put an abrupt end to any hope for the resumption of peace talks with Israel. It also could reverse Palestinian economic progress by triggering a cutoff of the annual $400 million that the Palestinian Authority gets in American aid and possibly lead to violence in the West Bank when the Palestinians realize that an empty U.N. declaration makes not an iota of difference to the situation on the ground.
In their quest for unilateral statehood, the Palestinians themselves are deeply divided in the vision of their future state. The Fatah faction sees itself as part of a secular Arab world, whereas Hamas envisions an Islamic Palestinian state. The U.N. vote could well create a Palestinian crisis resulting in a destructive civil conflict — a conflict that could spread into Israel, Jordan and other neighboring Middle East states.
While it is tempting to imagine that the United Nations can magically create a Palestinian state, only a return to the peace table and negotiations with Israel can do that. While it may take a little longer, a settlement reached that way is the only kind that can last, preparing the groundwork for an agreement whereby a new Palestinian state and the existing Jewish state agree to an end of the conflict. Once such a deal is reached, Israel should be the first to propose U.N. membership for the democratic and peace-loving Republic of Palestine.
(Mervyn Danker is the regional director of the American Jewish Committee’s Northern California office.)