WASHINGTON — No matter how difficult Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking gets, there are always opportunities to change its trajectory and move diplomacy in a positive direction. Another such opportunity will be provided later this month at the United Nations when the Palestinians ask for recognition as a state.
Some say that the Palestinians have no right to bring their case to the United Nations. Others say that the international community should let the Palestinians have whatever they want at the United Nations. These are false choices.
Instead, the Palestinians should negotiate their petition for statehood behind the scenes with Israel and other pro-Israel countries, including the United States, and then bring it forward to the General Assembly.
Israel should then vote for it. Doing so is squarely in its interest. Here’s why.
First, an avalanche of warm feelings toward Israel would be unleashed by such a move. The whole world would cheer. Israel would ignite a positive response in the Arab world unseen since it first signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians in 1993. Other Arab states, including those whose transformation to democracy requires Israel to pay more attention to popular sentiments in these countries, would rush to create new relations with Israel.
Second, the Palestinians would have certainty that they would be getting a state. This would change the whole internal Palestinian political dynamic, demonstrating to Palestinians that the moderate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas — one that promotes nonviolent actions rather than military ones — could actually create results.
And third, Israel, despite supporting Palestinian statehood, would not notice one physical change on the ground in Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. It would still hold all the cards, maintaining the same ability to negotiate that it has now. But unlike today, it would have massive international support for its arguments about recognition as a Jewish state by the Palestinians, no right of return for Palestinian refugees, and on Jerusalem. International opinion — as opposed to now — would be more flexible with Israel, helping Israel to advance its interests during final negotiations with the Palestinians.
Yet unfortunately, because Israel’s current government does not want to go this route, and has instead launched an intense international campaign to block Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the world holds its breath for the exact opposite to occur.
What we are likely to instead see once the Israelis vote against a Palestinian state and after the results of the vote are overwhelmingly in the Palestinians’ favor, is an accelerating negative trajectory for Israel’s position in the world.
In this scenario, it is likely that Israel will take action to annex territory in the West Bank where there are current settlements — settlements that, after the statehood vote, would be perceived as illegal Israeli control of Palestinian national territory. It is also likely that the U.S. Congress will cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, impoverishing the Palestinian government and possibly ushering in a more radical government led by Hamas. And it is likely that the diplomatic track between Israel and the Palestinians will be near death.
This is why the United States is so concerned about the pending U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood. The Obama administration correctly understands that the reactions to a vote in both the Congress and Israel will be severe, and when combined with the resultant Palestinian disillusionment, counterproductive to peacemaking.
There is also a tragic irony about this issue that should not be ignored.
In 1948, the process for creating a Jewish state was precarious and unclear. Yet the Jews of Palestine decided — rightly — to push forward to seek international recognition of their state at the United Nations despite the threat of war. And the neighboring Arab states reacted wrongly, rejected the state, and launched a fruitless — and losing — war. Imagine if the Arabs had, despite the political sacrifices it would have entailed, recognized Israel in 1948. Imagine all the pain that both Israelis and Arabs would have been spared.
Israel should therefore rethink its position before it’s too late and make a choice based upon its real interests. It would benefit immediately and directly by voting in favor of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, and most importantly, even the majority of its own citizens’ support Palestinian statehood and could learn to live with a “yes” vote. But by rejecting Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, Israel will be making a decision that, like the Arab decision of 1948, could haunt it for decades to come.
So Israel should vote for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. Doing so will change nothing on the ground the day after the vote, but will make all the difference in the world for the two sides as they continue on their exasperatingly long journey toward peace.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)