Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad recently announced that his government intends to declare an independent Palestinian state in the summer of 2011, even if no agreement is reached with Israel. This statement obviously generated unease in Israel, and not only among supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu's government - especially as it was accompanied by hints that European countries, and even the European Union itself, would recognize such a unilateral declaration of independence.
The unease and the concomitant apprehensions are understandable, but they may well be fundamentally misplaced. After all, anyone with eyes in his head, unless he is a prisoner of empty slogans or committed to political correctness, must admit that even if negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians resume, the prospects for an agreement are nil. And this is not due solely to the positions of the Netanyahu government: Its predecessor, led by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, negotiated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for two whole years and made him very generous offers, but still never managed to reach an agreement.
The reasons are clear: On the core issues - borders, Jerusalem, refugees - the gaps between even the most moderate positions on both sides are so wide that no rhetoric, and no assertive American involvement, is capable of bridging them. Anyone who thinks otherwise is indulging in pipe dreams.
Therefore, we should seriously consider what would happen if the Palestinians were indeed to declare a state and win relatively broad international recognition. First of all, it is clear that Israel would announce that this unilateral declaration nullifies all prior agreements between it and the Palestinians, from Oslo on; that it is released from all the obligations it has undertaken, including the economic ones; and that it will henceforth relate to the areas under Palestinian control as foreign territory. It is also clear that all Israeli obligations arising from its military control of the territories would be abrogated under both Israeli and international law. Not everyone would accept this argument, but it would not be possible to ignore it.
A unilateral Palestinian declaration would not change the situation on the ground. By itself, such a declaration could not bring about the evacuation of the settlements, regardless of whether the Palestinians say they accept the settlers as citizens of their state or continue to claim that the settlements are illegal. The same of course goes for East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians would presumably say they see as their capital.
What a unilateral declaration of independence would generate, however, is a fundamental change in the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Instead of a dispute between Israeli occupiers and occupied Palestinians, it would become a dispute between two states. An independent Palestine would undoubtedly claim that Israel is occupying its territories, but so does Syria.
Moreover, if Palestine were independent, Israel would have no responsibility for the Gaza Strip, and the Israel-Gaza border would become an international border like that between Egypt and Gaza. Hence Israel would not be obligated, inter alia, to allow passage between its territory and Palestinian territory, just as there is no such passage between Israel and Syria.
Of course the matter is not that simple, but any measure that would make the Israeli-Palestinian dispute more "normal" - that is to say, a dispute between states - would also advance the prospect for negotiations: It would be far easier to conduct negotiations on borders, the future of the settlements, territorial exchanges, Jerusalem and other issues between states.
One must hope that this scenario does not deter members of the Palestinian leadership and make them change their minds. On the contrary, they should take their destiny into their own hands and stand up to Israel as a full-fledged state. In so doing, they would free both themselves and us of the occupation and do what they have not managed to do since 1948, and what we have not managed to do since 1967. This is the only way to realize the vision of two states for two peoples.
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