Palestinian State Now? How?

As Latin American countries continue to announce recognition of Palestinian state, Israel better start thinking what response best serves its interests.

Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin
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Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

Unilateral Palestinian statehood seems like a terrible idea. It could destroy the chances for negotiations and raise the chances of war. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted in a non-binding resolution to veto UN recognition, apparently precluding widespread recognition by UN member states. Unilateral statehood won't change Palestinian life: Israel will continue building settlements, and Palestinian areas will remain pockmarked by checkpoints, blistered by Israeli incursions, and politically-riven.

Perhaps for these reasons, the Palestinian Authority seems uncertain about whether it intends to re-declare independence (the first time was by the PLO, in 1988 ). Yet over the last few weeks, something happened that is unprecedented in international relations, with a handful of South American countries recognizing "Palestine." Instead of a unilateral declaration, we are witnessing unilateral recognition of an independent Palestine - before it exists.

Diplomatically, it is problematic and risky to recognize a unilaterally declared state that is in conflict with an existing sovereign state. Recognizing an entity that has not even declared statehood may seem like folly. If so, what can recognition by Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay possibly mean for the region?

In the international realm, such recognition can be read as a diplomatic opening shot supporting Palestinian statehood. (In a warning shot early this year, the foreign ministers of France and Spain hinted at recognition, following two years of Palestinian state-building.) Such a step could make recognition appear increasingly legitimate to other countries.

In the region, each external boost makes unilateral statehood look like a real policy option, at a time when the other options are fading fast. Israel's "status quo" approach - settlement expansion and continued occupation - seems to guarantee conflict perpetuation. The bilateral negotiations made no change at all. New ideas are needed.

In Israel, the combination of this unwanted scenario and the sense of global impatience seems to have mobilized Israeli elites - something U.S. President Barack Obama and the offer of F-35s couldn't do. Some surprising ideas have appeared: In the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, veteran Middle East commentator Ehud Ya'ari argued for creating a Palestinian state through negotiations prior to a peace agreement. Likud party stalwart Michael Eitan has publicly stated that Israel must get real and pull out from some settlements in the West Bank, unilaterally. Haaretz reports that Likud cabinet minister Dan Meridor has floated similar ideas within his party.

What could unilateral statehood mean for Palestinians? Many have rightly noted the utter non-viability of statehood, in the current situation. The Palestinian territories are physically in tatters, the economy is not sustainable, the leadership is corrupt, weak and far from democratic. Even if the state could function, would it survive?

The reality is that unilaterally created state-like entities such as Somaliland, Turkish Cyprus or Kosovo and others do not arise from favorable political or economic conditions. Usually their prospects for viability are abysmal; they emerge out of desperation.

Interestingly, such entities often become increasingly democratic after declaring statehood, believing that democracy is rewarded by international recognition. Nagorno-Karabakh and Somaliland are two such examples. Institution building, and increasingly responsible management of internal affairs, often follows.

Further, the leadership often tries to prove how well it represents the population by improving elections and accountability. The PA, which has rather non-democratically postponed elections, might feel renewed commitment to this route.

Finally, what would unilateral statehood mean for the conflict? When Kosovo re-declared independence in 2008 (its first time was in 1990 ), the world waited for another great Balkan explosion. Nothing happened. Serbia bitterly denied Kosovo's sovereignty, but as one after another UN member state recognized Kosovo, Serbia's pleas to roll back recognition became increasingly absurd. That hasn't stopped the Israeli Foreign Ministry from embarking on a remarkably similar diplomatic PR effort to pre-empt European recognition, which could possibly meet the same fate.

But the Serbian people (like many Israelis ) knew the score. Before the declaration, polls showed that most Serbs acknowledged Kosovo was already gone. The leaders won't risk conceding this reality; but since 2008, the government has actually made groundbreaking progress toward the EU, inching closer to membership. It's nice not to be Europe's most hated country anymore.

Similarly, no Israeli leader, it seems, will make the concessions required to reach a negotiated two-state solution. As such, tacit acceptance of de facto Palestinian statehood could contribute to a two-state reality (curtailing one-state demands ), while Israeli leaders don't actually concede on the core issues.

What's left is reality on the ground. If possible, Israel/Palestine might be even more complicated than the Balkans. Inside Kosovo, Serb-populated territory is finite, and basically ends at the Ibar River. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the ground is changing daily.

To contribute to stability, de facto statehood would require mutual de facto concessions. The Palestinians would have to silently accept that the Etzion bloc, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel are probably permanent. Israel would have to freeze new settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem. This may be easier to do unofficially: During the official settlement freeze, Israel barely managed to stop construction in the West Bank, but in East Jerusalem - which was not "frozen" - construction nearly ceased.

The buzz of Palestinian recognition by a few South American countries may fizzle. But if it points to an unfolding reality, Israel better start thinking what response best serves its interests.

Dahlia Scheindlin is an independent public opinion researcher and a political consultant. She is writing her doctoral thesis on the subject of unilaterally declared, unrecognized states at Tel Aviv University.

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