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In 1998, while attending a peace process conference in Germany, I witnessed intense discussions about whether Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat should unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. (The Oslo Accord’s five-year interim phase was to end one month after the conference date.)
European diplomats argued aggressively against the declaration, insisting that more time should be given to negotiations. Ultimately, pressure, particularly from Europe and the United States, changed the course of action for Mr. Arafat, and no state was declared.
Today, we have returned to largely the same scenario, only there are now more reasons than ever for the US to support the proposal to the United Nations for a Palestinian state in September, and recognize that many things have changed between 1998 and 2011.
Historically, Europe has always had a great impact on the American position toward the Middle East. In fact, one of the primary issues on the agenda for President Obama’s May trip to Britain, Ireland, France, and Poland was the coordination of positions on the Middle East peace process. While it is not yet clear the extent to which Mr. Obama has been able to convince European leaders to adopt the US stance in the region, more European voices like France are now expressing publicly the possibility of recognizing a Palestinian state in September.
In addition, a number of former European leaders have released statements urging the European Union to support the Palestinian proposal for a state. Regardless of which and how many European parties are willing to work with Obama, one thing we know for certain is that the strong European rejection of Arafat’s intention to declare a Palestinian state in 1998 no longer exists in 2011.
In 1998, Arafat did not declare a Palestinian state yet retained his role as president of the Palestinian Authority. Though Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas still enjoys majority support among Palestinians, he is not the charismatic figure Arafat was. For Mr. Abbas to yield to US pressure and return to seemingly futile negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would certainly end his political career and raise serious questions over the future of the PA.
More importantly, in 1998, there was no Arab Spring, making the negotiations’ local and regional context completely different. Though there were many who were skeptical of the utility of negotiations, a significant majority wanted to try to use them to reach peace. In other words, the masses, for the most part, trusted their leaders and were willing to follow them. This relationship, however, has shifted in the era of Arab Spring. The public is now taking the leadership role that would, as a result, push Abbas to follow the will of the people, rather than keeping promises made behind closed doors.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s invitation for Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to come to Washington for talks to resolve the negotiations impasse is certainly the wrong approach. It seems that the lessons of the Arab Spring have not yet been learned: The leaders are replaceable, but the people are not. Ms. Clinton should be paying attention to what the Palestinian people want (the declaration of a Palestinian state), rather than heeding only what negotiators are saying. The most recent poll shows that 65 percent of Palestinians support a bid for statehood.
Not only has the Palestinian leadership and its relationship with the people changed between 1998 and 2011, but so too has the Israeli leadership and political climate. In 1998, Ehud Barak was in power with majority support in Israel. He had room to pursue a peace deal, and did. Today, as defense minister he has lost credibility even among his former Labor party and has become part of what amounts to a right wing government with an extremist agenda. This government seems to reject even the basics of negotiations, as illustrated by Mr. Netanyahu in his speech to the US Congress in May: no compromise on Jerusalem, no deal on refugees, and no 1967 borders.
Furthermore, the current Israeli government has a history of disrupting peace negotiations, seen most disturbingly in 1997, soon after Netanyahu first came to power in 1996, when he built the Har Homa settlement on annexed Palestinian land in Jerusalem. A UN General Assembly resolution condemning Israeli activity at Har Homa was passed 130 to 2, with only the US and Israel voting against it.
It’s fair to say that this Israeli government’s current positions, as well as its history, show that it is unwilling to commit to meaningful negotiations. Without a realistic possibility for fair or successful negotiations, Palestinian leaders are left with no choice but to seek statehood through UN recognition.
And the US should see this as a choice worth supporting as well. It is unclear why the Obama administration sees ongoing negotiations and a declaration of a Palestinian state in September as mutually exclusive. If the administration believes so strongly that negotiations can bridge the divide between Palestinians and Israelis, it should no doubt pursue them. However, preventing the long overdue declaration of a Palestinian state only to bring negotiators to the table is neither practical nor productive.
It seems that negotiations in themselves have become the goal rather than only the means to reaching a solution. In reality, a productive approach to negotiations necessitates an immediate declaration of a state, as Palestinians would then feel relatively empowered to engage in negotiations in which there still remains severe power imbalance.
Statehood will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; there are clear issues to be worked out including security, Jerusalem, settlements, and refugees. But Palestinian leaders need equal footing with Israeli leaders – not to mention popular backing – for any peace process to succeed. Statehood sets the stage not only for productive negotiations, but also for lasting peace.
The recognition of group identity is a basic and universal human need, and the Palestinians are not an exception. The time has come for the United States to unequivocally recognize this need. Such recognition will establish a foundation for future relationships built on understanding and mutual respect.
For decades, American foreign policy in the region has struggled to balance strategic interests and values. The current approach taken by some Congressional leaders of threatening to withhold aid to Palestinian territories if the PA moves ahead with a statehood bid harms both.
To use financial aid as a bargaining tool over a basic human need not only complicates US relations with the region, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but also raises serious ethical concerns. The Arab Spring has emphasized values of freedom, justice, and dignity, and US foreign policy in the region should be consistent with supporting these ideals, regardless of the political cost associated with such action. The Palestinians should not be punished for demanding freedom and the recognition of their state.
The United States should view the proposal for a Palestinian state at the UN in September, then, as an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to universal human values of justice and freedom, rather than acquiescing to political pressure and lobbying. And it should also recognize Palestinian statehood as a foundational element not just in ongoing negotiations, but also in forging real peace in the region. The US vote over the Palestinian independence in the UN will therefore be critical not only for the Palestinians but also for the spirit of the Arab Spring.
Ibrahim Sharqieh is deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center. He is an expert on Middle Eastern politics and international conflict resolution and holds a PhD from George Mason University’s Conflict Analysis and Resolution Institute.