Mahmoud Abbas AP Sept. 23, 2010
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaking at the UN General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2010 Photo by AP
Text size

A few days ago Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor informed the Foreign Ministry that Israel has no chance to stop UN recognition of Palestine. This didn’t really surprise anybody. Defense Minister Ehud Barak already months ago warned of the “diplomatic tsunami” Israel would face in September.

Can Netanyahu still engage with Palestinians' UN bid? Visit Haaretz.com on Facebook and share your views.

Currently it is clear that more than 130 countries will support the Palestinian bid for statehood. The U.S. has pledged to oppose the bid; so have Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Czech Republic, even though recent changes in the documents Palestinians will present to the UN may change this.

Given that the diplomatic defeat is unavoidable, the question is, was there any alternative? The Netanyahu government took it as an unquestioned dogma that UN recognition of a Palestinian state is a catastrophe for Israel. But this is neither the position of the security establishment, nor of the whole diplomatic corps. Veteran diplomat and former head of the Foreign Ministry Alon Liel has explicitly argued that that it could be favorable to Israel.

Israel’s potential gains from engaging with the Palestinian UN bid would be tangible. UN recognition of a Palestinian state alongside that of Israel could finally put the fears of many Israelis that the country’s existence is not internationally accepted to rest.

This would have required Israel to engage with the Palestinian UN bid and to support it under condition that the resolution explicitly states that the Palestinian state will exist alongside Israel, thus reaffirming Israel’s legitimacy.

Such an Israeli request to reformulate UN recognition would probably have garnered wide support in the international community, and it would have forced Palestinians to make a choice: either a fully recognized Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with agreed land-swaps, or no UN recognition. My hunch is that they would have gone for full membership at the UN, because this would have given them powerful legal means to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Even the Palestinian demand that their state would be based on the 1967 borders would have had benefits for Israel. For the first time in its history, the country would have had internationally legitimized borders on all sides – borders that many senior defense figures find perfectly defensible.

There are therefore compelling reasons why Israel should have cooperated with the Palestinian bid for statehood. The long-term gains would have outweighed the short-term problems by far. This raises the questions why the Netanyahu government never even considered the option of engaging with the Palestinian bid.

The main reason is rooted in the worldview of Benjamin Netanyahu, spelled out in his books and a number of articles he published in the 1990s. He sees Arabs in general as totally unreliable; he believes that only force can convince them that they need to accept Israel’s existence. He always believed that Palestinians could not be granted a territorially contiguous state, but only enclaves around their main population centers. This is why all his actions, like those of Ariel Sharon, have always had but one goal: making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.

Nevertheless, it has been reported that he is consulting with Colonel Danny Terza, formerly Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s map advisor in negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Terza is highly knowledgeable on the topic, and knows how close the previous government came to an agreement with the Palestinians. The question is whether this indicates that Netanyahu is changing his mind about a viable Palestinian state – and if he is, whether his coalition allows for a course of action more cooperative with the international community and the Palestinians.

If such a change were imminent, in theory Netanyahu could still avoid head-on confrontation with most of the world, and ask the Palestinians to postpone their move at the UN, so Israel could support it with some modifications. But the history of the current Netanyahu government makes it difficult to be optimistic. Its state of mind seems to be too distrustful towards the external world to allow for such a paradigm change.

Hence the immediate future is bleak: Israel is bracing for diplomatic confrontation as well as for clashes with Palestinians: the IDF is currently coaching settlement security officers how to deal with Palestinian demonstrations. While the Palestinian leadership has decided that any protests after September 20 will be peaceful, the recent terror attacks in Israel’s south and in Tel Aviv show that its control over the situation is tenuous.

Given that Israel’s government has almost equally limited influence over the more extreme settler groups, the potential for another regional wave of violence is dangerously high.