Palestinians Have Learned From Early Zionists

EU recognition of a Palestinian state and capital might reignite the peace process.

History has its ironies. Sixty one years ago, Israel's independence was declared despite Arab opposition. Now the Palestinians are taking the cue, and are considering making the same move.

There are indications that the European Union foreign ministers will formally recognize East Jerusalem as the future capital of the Palestinian state. This as a reaction to the idea that has been floated repeatedly, by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and to seek international recognition for this state de jure, even though it would only function on about two thirds of the West Bank de facto until final details are arranged.

I have fought for the two-state solution for many years and am in favor of East Jerusalem's being the Palestinian capital. While it would be preferable to reach these goals through negotiation, the process has been stuck for too many years. The EU's recognition of the Palestinian state and capital might reignite the peace process. Moreover this would force Palestinian extremists, who continue to be committed to the destruction of Israel, and Israeli extremists, who continue to dream of the Greater Israel, closer to realizing that history has moved on. The question is how such a move by the EU could be made without Israelis feeling that they are being pushed into an ever-growing isolation.

Israel's current government has been catastrophically bad at generating understanding for Israel's justified concerns. This has given ammunition to many left-wing critics of Israel in Europe and the U.S., who make life easy for themselves by arguing that Israel's fears are nothing but a fig-leaf for its colonial plans to annex the West Bank.

It is therefore of importance to formulate these concerns to make clear that they are shared even by unequivocal, long-term Israeli proponents of the two-state solution who have condemned Israeli settlement policies for years. Hence I want to spell out Israel's justified fears of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

The first is about security. Israel's citizens are traumatized by years of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, which only intensified once Israel withdrew from there. The international community has shown somewhat limited understanding for Israel's concerns, because these attacks have not cost many lives. While I think that the incursion in Gaza was conducted with excessive force, Israel had no choice but to do something to stop the attacks - and was severely condemned for this.

What will Israel's situation be after it withdraws from the West Bank to the 1967 borders? All major population centers of Israel would be in range of Katyushas. These missiles were sufficiently destructive to bring life in northern Israel to a complete standstill when Hezbollah fired large numbers of them into Israel during the Second Lebanon War. If Israel were to be attacked from the West Bank, the impact would be devastating, and Israel would have no choice but to react forcefully - and as a result would, once again be the target of international condemnation.

Hence Israelis say "we're damned if we do and damned if we don't": If Israel continues the occupation of large parts of the West Bank, it is under constant international criticism - but at least it is relatively safe. If Israel withdraws from the West Bank, it will open itself to attacks from there, and any retaliation will lead to massive international condemnation. Ergo, many Israeli think, it is preferable to maintain the status quo, unpalatable as it is.

The second issue is the lack of clarity over whether Salam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas represent all Palestinians: there are currently two de facto governments, with Hamas ruling Gaza. Hence Israelis ask whether anything signed by a Palestinian Authority that is de facto Fatah, will in any way bind Hamas, which has already rejected previous agreements with Israel. Israelis justifiably ask: what if Hamas wins the general elections again? Israel will be open to attacks from the West Bank by a government whose charter includes rabid anti-Semitic rants from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and that is currently armed and influenced by Iran - whose president keeps reiterating that Israel needs to be wiped off the map of the Middle East.

Deeper involvement of the EU is to be welcomed. But if it is to be constructive, it needs to take all these concerns into account in future steps. Recognition of a Palestinian state must be accompanied by more than abstract commitment to Israel's safety - by very concrete proposals. This would, for example, include committing international forces to safeguard a perimeter of around 20 kilometers along the 1967 borders for a number of years to make sure that most of Israel is not in the reach of Katyusha rockets. It would also include a provision that the international community will not accept any Palestinian government as legitimate that reneges on the two-state solution and calls for Israel's destruction.

But none of this will convince Israelis that they can take the risk for peace, if they are not sure that the final agreement prevents any further demands that endanger Israel. Israel's concern has always been that Palestinians will demand the Right of Return for their refugees as part of a final peace agreement, a demand which would mean the end of Israel as the Jewish homeland, and would lead to a nightmare. Hence the international community must actively address this thorny issue. It needs to call upon Arab states to guarantee that, as part of such a settlement, they would make every effort to end the refugee status of Palestinians and to allow them citizenship and integration into their countries.

An abridged version of this article appeared on on December 2, 2009

Click here to return to Carlo Strenger's blog