PARIS – This September, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, took the bold step of directly asking the United Nations to grant official recognition to the state of Palestine. The UN’s 193 member states look geared to vote on that request within the next few months. The world’s focus is now on Palestine.
It is almost two decades since the “quartet” – the UN, the United States, the European Union, and Russia – agreed that the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government should establish peace by coexisting as two separate states. And yet, while US President Barack Obama has referred to the quartet’s decision as his guiding principle for diplomatic action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation remains as dire as ever, because the devil remains in the details.
The Palestinians want an independent state, but on the condition that they secure Jerusalem as its capital, and that Israel ceases to expand settlements on territory that it has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel, however, has never considered ceding Jerusalem to Palestine. Many hope that, under pressure to reform municipal boundaries, Israel will consider this solution.
But the question of the settlements is even more difficult to resolve. Even under pressure from the international community and, most powerfully, from the US, Israel has consistently refused to slow expansion of its settlements in the West Bank.
Tragically, strong resistance from Israel and the Jewish diaspora has led Obama to acknowledge openly his powerlessness in the conflict, and thus to abandon US political pressure on Israel. As a result, a small group of pro-Israeli congressmen has been free to threaten and pressure those countries likely to vote for the recognition of the Palestinian state.
In any event, Israel’s leaders are not actually interested in a realistic peace. Instead, they seem to want a solution reminiscent of nineteenth-century Ireland – which led to a century of casualties on both sides. Israel is effectively demanding the disappearance of Palestinian identity.
The rest of the world should not tolerate that effort, even if the US does. Every country knows that it is difficult and costly to engage in an explicit conflict with the US. But when the US fails to act as a global leader because of its fragile internal politics, other countries do not have to follow its example.
Abbas well understands the riskiness of his strategy: there will be brutal retaliation from Israel. But his persistence in pursuing this last chance at peace has clearly gained him increased popularity at home and greater respect abroad.
Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s rival in Gaza, will undoubtedly try to thwart Abbas’s effort. An organization like Hamas, which supports permanent war – and with which Israel negotiated for five years for the release of one abducted Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners – is exactly the enemy that Israel needs to justify its hardline stance.
For a long time, Israeli leaders have lobbied supporters like me, who, since the Holocaust, have defended the Jewish people’s right to security and statehood. But Israel’s tactics regarding Palestine have been unconscionable. They have strengthened Hamas, a hostile opponent of peace, pushed the US to vote against the Palestinian state whose birth it defends, and refused outright to accept any conditions that might resolve the conflict.
No civilized country can permit this behavior. Palestine must be granted legal status so that, at the very least, its people will have access to the international legal court, with the understanding that international support is required to aid and defend this young state.
The Americans have lost their moral right to leadership in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is time for Europe to step into the fray.