More than a decade ago, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, Palestinians threatened to unilaterally declare statehood. Israel resisted, and the idea went into limbo. Negotiations with Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, bogged down, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walked away from Camp David, starting the violence that began the second intifada.
In the past year, Palestinians have once more threatened to go to the United Nations for a statehood declaration. Just recently, the “moderate” Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told an Italian newspaper that the Palestinians would declare statehood by next summer if no agreement is reached.
In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, highlighted the problems for Israel emanating from the Palestinian threats and American ambiguity toward vetoing any Security Council resolution declaring a Palestinian state based on the 1948 armistice lines. Several hundred thousand Israelis live in formerly Jordanian occupied areas of Jerusalem, and in towns and villages in Judea and Samaria, across the demarcation line that divided the heart of Jerusalem and separated Israel from Jordan for 19 years.
In 2004, President George W. Bush made a commitment to Israel in a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that any final resolution would include border adjustments that placed major Israeli population blocs across the old armistice line inside Israel, and that descendants of Palestinian refugees would be resettled in the future Palestine, not Israel. Bush told Sharon: “It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
Although this promise was endorsed by both houses of Congress, President Barack Obama has failed to clarify whether that remains American policy, heightening the concerns of Israel’s supporters.
Yet a declaration of statehood outside a negotiated agreement may be a bigger problem for Palestinian leaders than for Israel. Hamas, and many other Palestinians, currently consider all of Israel to be “occupied” Palestinian territory. If the territory on the West Bank and Gaza becomes “Palestine,” the rest must be Israel.
Yet Palestinians can’t have it both ways.
Refugee status, which Palestinians uniquely hold generations after the genuine refugees fled, would presumably be nullified. Palestinians could no longer claim to be stateless. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would have to finally tell his people there will be no influx into Israel of Arabs descended from those who left more than six decades ago.
Likewise, the safety of Israeli citizens — inside and outside the Palestinians’ new country — would be the responsibility of Palestine’s government. Rockets fired from Palestine would no longer be terrorism, but acts of war originating from a sovereign state.
Abbas, whose term expired some time ago, would face even greater questions about his legitimacy. Without an agreement with Israel, Palestinians would lack passage between Gaza and the West Bank. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Hamas would violently depose Palestinian Authority leaders, as they did in Gaza after Israel withdrew. Otherwise, a three-state solution — Israel, Palestine and Gaza –would be likely, as occurred between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh, separated by India.
Much of the world would label Israel’s control of Jerusalem and adjacent suburbs “occupation,” but it does that already. Israel and Palestine wouldn’t be the world’s only states with an unresolved border dispute.
And the biggest impediment for Palestinian leaders? They would have to govern and be responsible for everything from security to electricity, now supplied by Israel, to picking up trash. And there would be no Israel Defense Force to help fend off enemies.
After six decades of struggle, Palestinians have great reason to compromise, finally accepting Israel’s repeated offers for a negotiated peace agreement, rather than undertake this high-stakes risky course. Only time will tell if people who celebrated suicide bombers will act to help themselves and their children to a brighter future in their own state, or choose more lost decades of trying to hurt the Jews.
John Cohn is a Philadelphia physician and professor at Thomas Jefferson University who writes frequently about the Middle East.