Negotiating with Israel may be exhausting and frustrating, but if Palestinians really want a state, they must persevere
By: Einat Wilf
Well-meaning world leaders, supporters of peace, even friends of Israel, are under the impression that in supporting the Palestinian gambit in the UN, they are supporting the cause of Palestinian statehood and peace. They could not be more wrong.
In my years in public policy and foreign affairs, I learned that we would do well to listen to what Palestinian leaders say publicly. We mistakenly assume that what they say in private is of greater value, but it is their public pronouncements that are truly binding. Abbas said in the New York Times on 17 May that “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalisation of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one”, and pave the way “to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice”.
Taking Abbas at his word, as we should, the Palestinians are not going to the UN to get a state. The Palestinians are too smart and knowledgeable to be so mistaken about what is possible in the UN. Rather, they are going to the UN to continue their fight against Israel and Zionism in an arena where they enjoy a considerable advantage. This is a legitimate move for a people engaged in conflict, but it has nothing to do with seeking statehood, and certainly not with promoting peace. As others have argued, Britain and Israel should say yes, and in fact have repeatedly said yes, to Palestinian statehood. Unfortunately, the vote in the UN has nothing to do with it.
The vote in the UN is the continuation of the battle against Israel and Zionism by different means. Having failed to prevent Jewish immigration to British-Mandate Palestine and the establishment of Israel, having failed to defeat Israel militarily, having failed to strangle Israel economically and having failed to terrorise Israel’s citizens into submission, the Palestinians, and many Arab and Muslim countries, are taking advantage of the current anti-Israel mood to isolate Israel diplomatically and present Israel and Zionism as fundamentally illegitimate.
The idea that the Jewish people, as a people, have a historical connection to the land of Israel and the right to self-determination in the only land in which they were ever sovereign is still denied in the region and even beyond. It seems that the Palestinians never got beyond what British foreign minister Ernest Bevin – not an ardent Zionist by any measure – characterised in his speech to the British parliament in 1947 as the “irreconcilable conflict of principles” in British-Mandate Palestine between the Jewish desire for “the creation of a sovereign Jewish state” and the Arab insistence on resisting “to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine”.
Yet the reason that the Jews have been able to gain statehood against such opposition, whereas the Palestinians, enjoying widespread sympathy, have failed, is that the Zionist movement sought the dignity of sovereignty above all. In their quest for statehood the Jewish people put the past behind, abandoned the demand for absolute justice and focused on building their future.
Indeed, the Zionist desire for sovereignty was so deep that by accepting the UN partition plan in 1947, the movement was willing to let go of Zion, Jerusalem, the city that gave it its very name, in order to get at least a state. Chaim Weitzman, Israel’s first president and one of the Zionist movement’s most important leaders, is known to have said that the Jewish people would accept a state, even if it was the size of napkin. That’s how leaders of a movement that seeks a state above all speak and act.
If this decades-old conflict is ever to come to peaceful resolution, the Palestinians have no alternative to negotiating with Israel. It’s not pleasant. It’s exhausting and frustrating. It’s certainly not as exhilarating as a global race for votes in the UN. Negotiating a state would mean forgoing claims for complete rectification of all past wrongs. But that is the choice that should be taken by a people who truly want a real – rather than a virtual – state.