Israel can't stop Palestinian independence
The 'diplomatic holding action' that Israel is conducting has enjoyed partial success, but the world is gradually becoming accustomed to the idea that Palestine will join the family of nations this summer.
They will go out into Jerusalem's summer heat and march down Saladin Street toward the Old City walls. Fifty Palestinians, then 100, then 200 and 1,000 and 10,000. Marching and shouting "Istiqlal," independence. Not because they support Ehud Barak's new party, Atzmaut (the Hebrew word for independence ), but to get Israel out of the territories beyond the Green Line and establish a Palestinian state there. Just like the demonstrators in Tunisia got rid of Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali.
How will Israel react? Will it shoot the demonstrators and kill them before cameras from all over the world? A public relations disaster. Will it jail thousands for holding an unauthorized demonstration? Not practical. Will it blame the Palestinian Authority? Irrelevant. And what if the demonstrators keep marching, day after day, supported by international sympathy and all the international news media?
This scenario, which researchers Shaul Mishal and Doron Mazza call the White Intifada, may come to pass in August or September, as the target date the Palestinians have set for declaring an independent state approaches. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are outflanking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The combined maneuver they launched - building the institutions of statehood while also obtaining international recognition - is isolating Israel, making it appear like a country that rejects peace and insists on retaining the settlements.
The world is gradually becoming accustomed to the idea that Palestine will join the family of nations this summer. That is what U.S. President Barack Obama promised in his address to the most recent United Nations General Assembly. That is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised in her address to the Saban Forum (a Palestinian state, achieved through negotiations, is inevitable, she said ). That is what the Latin American states have promised, and now also Russia, a member of the international Quartet of Middle East peace-makers and a permanent member of the Security Council. Without negotiations, there will be internationalization.
The higher the Palestinians' expectations are, the deeper their disappointment will be come September when independence hasn't yet arrived. After a prior target date for a permanent settlement was missed, on September 13, 2000, the intifada broke out two and a half weeks later. This time, the Palestinians have prepared international support in advance, and if they are wise, they will refrain from blowing up buses and focus on street protests like those in Bil'in - but in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu's counterclaim, that the Palestinians are to blame for the failure of the negotiations, has been received with skepticism. Abbas is telling everyone that he gave Netanyahu a detailed peace proposal addressing all the core issues, but the prime minister did not respond. And worldwide, they believe him.
The "diplomatic holding action" that Israel is conducting against Palestinian recognition has enjoyed partial success: Both the U.S. Congress and the European Union expressed their opposition to a unilateral declaration of independence. But Israel's position is eroding with every new country that recognizes Palestine in the 1967 borders.
Netanyahu has responded by hunkering down. He drove the rebellious Labor Party ministers out of his government, opting instead for a right-wing coalition to show "steadfast determination" in the face of international pressure.
The ridiculous spin from his bureau, accusing the ousted ministers of responsibility for the diplomatic impasse, is exaggerated even by the standards of Netanyahu and his advisers. Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman, failed politicians who lost everything when they hesitated to leave the government, are the ones who thwarted peace? Not Netanyahu's refusal to freeze settlement construction and talk about borders?
Now, Netanyahu has several options in his effort to foil Palestinian independence, but all are terrible. It is too late to present a diplomatic program that could convince anyone in the world while still enjoying the support of his right-wing coalition.
He could strike Iran, or call early elections. In both cases, the risks are enormous and the problem would only be delayed. He could undermine Abbas' rule with retaliatory moves, first and foremost a deal that would free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for releasing Hamas operatives to the West Bank. That would hurt the PA, but would also endanger Israel. Or he could recognize a Palestinian state in the existing borders, separate from it as much as possible and offer to negotiate.
The approaching summer will bring an exceptionally complex political challenge for Netanyahu. He will need all the talent for stratagems that he and Barak displayed in breaking up Labor if he is to outflank Abbas in turn and avoid a confrontation with the Palestinians. If he leaves the initiative to them, he will have to face their independence march in Jerusalem.