Will the Real Unilateralists Please Stand Up?

Why is asking the United Nations to endorse a Palestinian state more unilateral than building settlements to destroy one?

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Abbas poses with a band at the opening of a museum of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, November 9, 2014.
Abbas poses with a band at the opening of a museum of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, November 9, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

“If thought corrupts language,” wrote George Orwell, “language can also corrupt thought.” Take the Israeli government’s rhetoric about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to get the United Nations Security Council to endorse a timetable for Palestinian statehood. The United States must veto such a resolution, a senior Israeli official told reporters this week, because “the consistent American policy for the past 47 years has opposed such unilateral steps.”

Note the corruption of language. According to Google, a “unilateral” action is one taken “without the agreement of another or others.” But the Palestinian effort is entirely dependent on the agreement of others. The Palestinians are asking the countries on the UN Security Council to vote to end Israeli control of the West Bank. (Formally, in fact, they’re not even the ones asking. Since the Palestinians don’t have a seat on the Security Council, Jordan will introduce the resolution). Israel, by contrast, is asking one country – the United States – to veto the resolution irrespective of how the other Security Council members vote. Which side, then, is advocating unilateral action?

Besides, why is Israel suddenly so offended by unilateralism? The Gaza disengagement was unilateral. So was building the separation barrier. It’s hard to think of anything more unilateral than settlement expansion: Virtually the entire world opposes it, and yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does it anyway. In fact, unilateralism – the idea that Jews should rely on themselves rather than the tender mercies of the gentile world – is deeply ingrained in Israeli political culture. As David Ben-Gurion famously said, “What matters is not what the goyim say, but what the Jews do.” As recently as last month, while speaking about Iran, Netanyahu proclaimed his unilateralism proudly. Israel, he said, “reserves its right to defend itself by itself.”

The Palestinians, by contrast, are too weak to do almost anything unilaterally. That’s one of the costs of not having a state. For decades, they’ve been locked in a bilateral struggle against a far more powerful adversary. For decades, Palestinian leaders have hoped the United States would balance the scales. And for decades, the United States has refused. Even during the 1990s, writes former Clinton administration peace processor Aaron David Miller, “Not a single senior-level official involved with the negotiations was willing or able to present, let alone fight for, the Arab or Palestinian perspective.”

Under Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, America’s refusal to seriously pressure Israel was mitigated somewhat by the fact that Israel’s own leaders wanted a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. (Albeit a smaller and more circumscribed one than Palestinian leaders desired). But the Palestinians now face an Israeli leader who openly rejects that idea. During the Kerry talks, according to Barak Ravid, Netanyahu “flatly refused to present a map [of what a Palestinian state might look like] throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu did not give the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions he would be willing to make.”

When the negotiations failed, the Americans bluntly blamed Netanyahu for their breakdown. “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure,” an unnamed administration official told Nahum Barnea, “but people in Israel shouldn't ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements.” And yet the Americans still refused to pressure Netanyahu to negotiate seriously.

Thus, Abbas is now asking the United Nations to do what the United States would not: give the Palestinians some leverage. There’s nothing mysterious about this. It’s how weaker parties in bilateral conflicts often act. The Palestinians want the UN to arbitrate their conflict with Israel for the same reason Pakistanis want the UN to arbitrate their conflict with India over Kashmir and Filipinos want the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to arbitrate their conflict with China over the South China Sea: Because left alone to face a far more powerful foe, they’re getting crushed.

U.S. President Barack Obama surely knows all this. Given his personal experience in Kenya and Indonesia, he identifies with the colonial subjugation Palestinians suffer in the West Bank. And given his personal experience with left-leaning Jews in Chicago, he identifies with a liberal Zionism that can only be preserved if the occupation ends. Again and again during his presidency, he has abandoned his own moral instincts under domestic political pressure. And as a result, he may well go down in history as the president who presided over the two-state solution’s death.

Now, in the autumn of his presidency, the Palestinians are no longer asking Obama to save them. They’re merely asking him to get out of the way. It makes sense for the United States to try to influence the terms of a UN statehood resolution: Such a resolution should spur serious negotiations, not substitute them. But if the United States vetoes, and thus denies the Palestinians any leverage over Israel, it will be condemning them to a bilateral “peace process” that its own officials admit has become a sham.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Obama likes to say, quoting Martin Luther King, “but it leans toward justice.” But that’s not quite right. It only leans when people bend it. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this may be Barack Obama’s last chance.

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