And What if Israel Were to Recognize Palestine?

Should Israel negotiate with a Palestinian state or with the PA? The first one’s never been tried, so it’s worth a shot.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has in recent days been under enormous pressure to defer a vote on the Palestinians’ UN resolution, which would set a date for ending the occupation.

According to Palestinian reports, the Palestinian “non-partner” is likely to acquiesce and defer the “unilateral move” until after the Israeli election in March.

The pressure effort is naturally being led by Washington, which is trapped between its commitment to the two-state principle, which demands that it refrain from using its veto, and its understanding of the impact such a step would have on its relations with Israel and the Jewish lobby.

It’s common knowledge in Washington, as in Israel, that if not for politics, it would have been possible to pursue a policy. The complications are obvious but the diplomatic logic is puzzling.

The pressure to postpone the UN vote rests on the assumption that Israelis might switch to a government that’s less right-wing, less extremist, less racist and more desirous of making peace than the current one.

It also assumes that even in the less optimistic scenario - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forms the next government - he will be less bound by the extremist fringes and in any case will be able to flex in negotiations more than he can now.

But these assumptions depend, in the best case, on fending off the right wing, or, in the more realistic case, on hopes that border on the delusional.

After all, even if Netanyahu is elected to another term, it won’t be because he promises to withdraw from the territories, divide Jerusalem and recognize a Palestinian state. He will be elected precisely because he has no intention of changing his policy.

How can Washington expect that someone defined as the defensive shield protecting Israel from a Palestinian state will demonstrate flexibility after he is elected?

This assumption is as logical as the expectation that Netanyahu will recognize Palestine in honor of the Passover holiday, or in honor of Nowruz, the Persian new year, which falls the week of the election.

No less surprising is the assumption that the next government will be less right-wing. It’s hard to believe Washington is pinning its hopes on Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog’s chants of “mahapakh, mahapakh, mahapakh!” - an electoral upset.

But even if a miracle happens, how can we know what Herzog’s alternate prime minister, Tzipi Livni, will say?

Until now, she has spoken of the need for negotiations but not about the substance of them. She has declared the Western Wall an Israeli site forever. But what about the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem? What about a withdrawal from the settlements and drawing Israel’s borders?

Has Washington truly been ignoring all the reports it gets from Tel Aviv about the rightward shift in Israeli public opinion? Does it know something that Israel’s citizens don’t know about the approach of a leftist tsunami that will flood the country this March?

But miracles do happen. Thus it’s reasonable to ask what the difference is between recognizing a Palestinian state and setting a deadline for ending the occupation before the election and doing the same thing after it.

In either case, Israel will be asked to negotiate with the Palestinians; in either case, it will be forced to either accept or reject the demand to end the occupation; and in either case, it will understand very well where the negotiations with the Palestinians are leading.

Thus the dispute boils down to the question of whether it’s preferable for Israel to conduct negotiations with a Palestinian state or with the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has already answered the second half of this question: It made a laughingstock of the PA and sneered at U.S. efforts to advance the negotiations. In contrast, the first half of the question has never been tried, so it’s worth giving it a shot.

Negotiations with a Palestinian state are liable to be harder, but whatever is achieved in them will have much greater validity.

Recognizing Palestine would constitute a substantive expression of faith in the two-state solution. And setting a deadline for ending the occupation even before the election would mean confronting the Israeli voter with a political campaign agenda.

If this constitutes intervention in the election or in Israel’s internal affairs, then it’s welcome intervention. And anyone who thinks that by doing so, Washington would play into Netanyahu’s hands and strengthen him should guarantee that Netanyahu won’t be elected without such intervention.