The Palestinian Authority is stepping up efforts to get UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September, if no deal is reached before then. More than 100 countries have reportedly signed up. France seems convinced, Germany seems unconvinced, Britain seems undecided, but flirting with the idea. It is unclear what the resolution would say. No matter, Mahmoud Abbas is pushing hard: if the UN rejected the Palestinian bid for statehood, “I don’t know what the next step would be, but maybe it would be difficult, maybe dangerous … A third intifada is not my preference,” he all but threatened. Let’s turn this reasoning around and ask the question that should be considered instead.
What would actually happen come a UN-recognized Palestine?
Let’s start with two assumptions and then look at three likely effects.
First: the conflict will retain an existential dimension. Hardliners on both sides, more significantly on the Palestinian side, will not be satisfied with a state in the 1967 borders, give or take some land swaps. Even in the Palestinian center, more and more people doubt the benefit of two states. In short: whatever happens in the fall, the conflict will not end. This assumption is a fact-of-life, in my view. But a fact-of-life that too many people are intellectually and psychologically unable to swallow. Why? Because if you do, all the talk of “peace” and “two-state solution” and “final status” suddenly has a hollow ring. The enlightened Western mind is trained to believe in progress and problem solving and finishing things. So let’s make another unpleasant assumption, this time counter-factual.
Second, just assume there would be no settlements dotted all over the West Bank. Assume that all those pesky settlers would pack up and leave Ariel, Givat Ze’ev, Gilo, even Ma’ale Adumim. The assumption is entirely and utterly unrealistic, of course, but it helps clear the mind for a more sober assessment. Too many observers in the United States and Europe have convinced themselves that the settlements, and only the settlements, are blocking the road to peace and a Palestinian state. Get rid of the settlers, and you’ll have peace. Once you believe some version of that argument, you’re morally on the safe side, it’s possible to believe in progress, and it just feels good. Problem is, it’s got little to do with reality.
So, it’s September, there’s Palestine, the conflict goes on, and we ignore the settlers. Then what?
The first effect would be increased international pressure on Israel. How strong that pressure would be is difficult to say. The Israeli debate in these times has a paranoid streak. Especially the right often panics because the Jewish State is, as they see it, progressively losing its legitimacy: Goldstone (before revision) — Mavi Marmara — anti-Israel feeing everywhere. On top of it Netanyahu’s clumsy diplomacy. Broad international support for Palestine in September could hasten that perceived erosion of Israeli legitimacy. The IDF would then illegally occupy a sovereign state, plain and simple, many would say. Not just a part of a state, like in the Golan, but an entire state. That could be a problem for Israel. Boycotts, diplomatic isolation, potential indictments abroad, all that could get worse and more unpleasant for Jerusalem. But one thing is pretty clear as well: it would not bring down Israel. Which brings us to point two.
The second likely effect would be, well, not that much: the status quo would more or less continue. Israel’s economy is likely to keep vastly outperforming all of its neighbours. The conflict’s intractable issues would remain unresolved: Israel would likely insist on a military presence in the Jordan valley. It would remain unclear how Jerusalem and the city’s holy places would be organized. The right of return will remain a divisive issue. Israel’s security establishment would maintain some form of control of Palestine, also to secure Ben Gurion airport. Most significantly, Hamas would continue ruling Gaza in despair. Jihadi hardliners in the Strip would likely continue low-level attacks against Israeli communities in the South. But sooner or later, the Israeli mainstream and even the right would likely find that their worst fears have not come true.
The opposite would happen on the Palestinian side: the status quo would more or less continue, but the disappointment with that would grow. Especially after loud celebrations of statehood in the streets of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nablus (less so in the streets of Gaza City). Palestine would likely be born as a failed state, deeply divided, hobbled by some form occupation, not sovereign in a meaningful way (we still ignore the settlers). Palestinian hopes for justice and peace would not be realized – but now that the long coveted state is declared already, the one and only shot has been fired into the hot Middle Eastern air with its odd burned smell. Palestinians would now be citizens with expectations. The international community would expect progress, too. And even a weak state, Ramallah’s leaders may find, suddenly is in a position to lose legitimacy. As usual, that process will start on the radical fringes of Palestinian society — even if Israel will be blamed for obstructing progress. At the same time that by now well-studied logic is likely to kick in: the Palestinian authorities will have the “counterinsurgent’s” responsibilities, if that terminology may be allowed here, and more radical “insurgents” will continue challenging its legitimacy internally. Which leads to the next effect.
Third: at some point, it is a near-certainty that the situation would escalate at one or more of the seams, in Gaza, in the North, in the West Bank, in Israel proper, or everywhere at the same time, no matter if there’s Palestine or not. If that happens and if it involves the Palestinian state, the stakes will be vastly higher than in 2006 in the North or in 2008/09 in the South. If restaurants and buses explode again in Jerusalem, if rockets rain down on Tel Aviv, if an airliner would be downed approaching Ben Gurion, then even skeptical Europeans will understand that Israel has no alternative but to react with determination. But then against a state. Nobody in his right mind can want such a scenario.
Add to that a changing context. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been as central to the future of the region (and neither to the future of jihadism) as many regional experts in the West have long maintained — in eerie agreement with many of the region’s despots who are now falling. The Arab Spring had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (sorry, Abdullah Gül). Israel’s neighbours will probably be busy with internal politics for the coming months and years, although all this means more uncertainty for Israel. Europe and America are facing problems on their own. The conflict in the Holy Land has been pushed outside the media limelight and down the international priority list, where it should be easier to reach compromises.
Those who flirt with recognizing Palestine in September should consider a cascade of risks: putting the conflict in onerous spotlight again, perhaps making escalation more likely, certainly upping the stakes in such an escalation. All that could bring the conflict’s existential dimension to the fore in a bloody and painful way. Who would ultimately benefit from such a scenario is difficult to say. It would probably not be the Palestinians. Too many innocent people on both sides would pay a terrible price.
Abbas is playing with fire, and he knows it (“[the second intifada] was disastrous for us,” he just said, somewhat ominously). But the Palestinian president might not be able to banish the spirits he has summoned, come September. Europeans should call the bluff, whatever Obama will do. Sarkozy’s and Cameron’s advisors should think again, and carefully listen to Merkel next month.