The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is wearing thin the patience of the international community. As we creep closer to the date when the majority of U.N. member states officially lend their support to the Palestinian bid for statehood, Israel will find itself in a far tougher, more isolated position than it has since its creation 63 years ago.
The Palestinian initiative involves applying for full U.N. membership to the 15 member states at the Security Council. With the United States set to use its veto and effectively quash the request, it is believed that the Palestinians will then turn to the General Assembly where they would have secured the necessary two-thirds majority for a successful resolution, which would see Palestinian status upgraded to non-member state. While the General Assembly’s resolutions are non-binding, in contrast to the Security Council’s, the upgrade in status opens the door to many international legal forums, including the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Practically speaking, this means that the Palestinians will be able to bring cases against Israeli officials, perhaps for West Bank settlement-related activities, seen as illegal by the international community.
The present Israeli government, coupled with the American government (and a handful of European states), views the U.N. initiative as antithetical to the 17-year-old negotiations. But the negotiations process has not only failed to bring both sides closer to a resolution, it has also resulted in greater Israeli entrenchment of settlement expansion on Palestinian land.
The basis for Israeli and U.S. opposition to a Palestinian state endorsed by the U.N. stems in large part from a reduction in the importance of the U.S. role in the conflict along with an inherent increase in Palestinian bargaining power as a result of international state recognition.
Whatever the short-term interests that are driving Israeli-U.S. opposition, they may be overlooking the fact that international recognition of a Palestinian state is much more likely to guarantee the two-state solution, which is the only pathway to secure a State of Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. The alternative would be that the Palestinians, tired of failing to achieve sovereignty, abandon the national struggle in favor of a struggle for basic human rights. If the two-state solution proves too difficult to secure, one-state will be the next best alternative.
Beyond this, the Palestinian pursuit of U.N. membership offers Israel a number of strategic and moral advantages. First, an internationally recognized Palestinian state levels the playing field. Israel would no longer be viewed as Goliath; the Palestinians would no longer be deemed “helpless” stateless victims, and the current asymmetrical conflict would become a conflict between two sovereign states, even if Israel would be the stronger of the two. As a state, Palestine would be held accountable for its transgressions, such as firing missiles into Israel – a point that is underemphasized. With statehood comes responsibility and Israel could take the Palestinian government to international court for cases of belligerence or bring it to the attention to the U.N.
Second, with the recent attacks on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, a severe worsening in relations between Turkey and Israel and an overall unstable Middle East, Israeli support of a Palestinian state would quell animosity on the Arab street and create a less shaky environment in a region that can catch fire at a blink of an eye.
Third, international recognition of a Palestinian state would simultaneously decrease Israel’s isolation and improve its already-strained relations with the United States, for American opposition to the Palestinian initiative translates to further resentment of America by many in the Arab world.
Finally, all of the major issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and borders will be resolved through negotiations and not through unilateral measures as argued by the United States and Israel, thus allowing both sides to reach a compromise.
With or without full membership in the U.N., the Palestinian strategy of internationalizing the conflict will be largely successful. Unless Israel shifts its approach, it will continue to face deeper isolation on the international stage and, outside of the negotiation track, Israel will be hard-pressed to find political solutions to effectively deal with the undetermined diplomatic and legal consequences surrounding the U.N. initiative.
Given that the Arab Spring has fundamentally altered the socio-economic and political landscape of the Middle East, Israel must seize this moment as a critical junction in its history and act in its national interest.
Natalia Simanovsky has worked as a research officer at various think tanks in North America and the Middle East. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.