Israel’s efforts to neutralize the Palestinian statehood bid has reached frenzied proportions in recent days. The prime minister spent his time chasing nations in New York for support, and constructing his “Truth” speech. Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin wrote on the Web site of Ma’ariv that the Palestinian U.N. bid represents a denial of Israel’s very sovereignty and existence.
What scares Israel so much? The Palestinian state? Unilateralism?
As the panic pitch rose, anger at the U.N. bid seemed to merge with demonization of Palestinian statehood itself. Israel has expressed security fears of a Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders, which it has famously called “indefensible,” with a capital in East Jerusalem, no less. The fate of Israeli citizens inside those territories is uncertain; former Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens wrote in Haaretz this week of impending ethnic cleansing.
Yet the more common focus of Israeli criticism is unilateralism, because the Palestinian state would be based on terms that are unacceptable to Israel. Widespread support of General Assembly members would leave Israel diplomatically shamed and isolated, even if Palestine fails to enter the United Nations. Violence could erupt: Unilaterally declared statehood won’t change reality on the ground, and Palestinian disappointment may turn into chaos or a resurgence of Hamas. And although Israel has not said so officially, it is certainly worried that a sovereign Palestine will pursue Israel in international criminal courts.
Finally, the Israeli government claims that the unilateral statehood bid will be the end of negotiations. But it has not provided a logical or clear explanation for why this is so.
In fact, under close scrutiny, many of these fears don’t entirely hold up. Every Israeli prime minister since 1993 has supported a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with adjustments (rendering remonstrations against President Barack Obama’s May speech superficial). Once there is a Palestinian state, negotiations can indeed be revived — Israel just has to decide so — and they will mainly be about a border dispute. The question of Palestinian refugees becomes one of symbolism and compensation. It will take time for a Palestinian government in Ramallah to physically transplant itself to East Jerusalem — enough to advance negotiations. Will there be ethnic transfer because one Palestinian diplomat said it would be best if the conflicting sides were separated? Well, there’s a party in the Israeli governing coalition that explicitly calls for transfer of Arab Israelis. It hasn’t happened yet.
Regarding international criminal courts: If the Palestinians score a diplomatic victory in the U.N. General Assembly, but fail with the Security Council vote, they will not achieve full sovereign statehood. And if that is the case, it won’t be so easy for them to access the international criminal court system, although not impossible.
Perhaps the biggest genuine danger to Israel is if Palestine, like some other unrecognized states, descends into poverty and internal conflict, becoming a criminal or terrorist badland.
Luckily, both Israel and the Palestinians can take steps to prevent this. But it would take a more rational look at the silver linings — not just the dangers of Palestinian statehood. There may even be opportunities along the way.
With Palestinian statehood, Israel stands to gain finite borders and finally ends the fear of having to rule over millions of Palestinians. The pressure to make a whole package of far-reaching compromises in a peace agreement is off. Israel can make compromises slowly and incrementally instead.
In recent days, we have seen a tightening of relations between Israel and Washington. Israel sees President Obama taking great risks for his commitment to Israel, and his intervention in the Egyptian embassy crisis was a turning point. Despite criticism from the left in Israel and abroad, perhaps the U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood in the Security Council will strengthen trust in Obama — which can only strengthen Israel.
If Israel and the Palestinians manage to avoid escalation — a great, unknown if — widespread diplomatic recognition could help stabilize Palestinian society. There are other unilaterally declared entities that embrace a strategy of democratization and stabilization to prove their worthiness for international recognition, such as Turkish Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Somaliland. An increasingly democratic and stable Palestine would be good for Israel.
What about Hamas trying to take back support by unleashing a new spiral of violence? Again, to make their case, the Palestinians will be working hard to prevent violence. Further, the major national achievement of international recognition could be seen as a reward for nonviolence, just as critics say that Palestinians viewed the dismantling of Gaza settlements in 2005 as a reward for violence. That’s incentive to maintain the calm.
Disputed Palestinian statehood will not end the pressure for negotiations and peace. If Israel encourages Palestinian stability, rather than panicking, both sides could be in a better position to reach it.
Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion researcher and political analyst. She is a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University and blogs regularly at 972mag.com.