Saturday, June 21, 2003

Limited Palestinian Statehood

In a Washington Post editorial yesterday, Benjamin Netanyahu comes out in favor of a limited Palestinian state.

Between the unacceptable alternatives of continuing to rule over millions of Palestinians, or ceding them full control over territory that would jeopardize Israeli security, Bibi claims there is a third way: a limited sovereignty arrangement in which the Palestinians would exercise full control over internal affairs, while Israel maintains responsibility for external security.

For example, the Palestinians would have internal security and police forces but not an army. They would be able to establish diplomatic relations with other countries but not to forge military pacts. They could import goods and merchandise but not weapons and armaments. Control over Palestinian daily life would be in the hands of the Palestinians alone, but security control over borders, ports and airspace would remain in Israel's hands.

This is not a new idea. Israelis of various political stripes have been talking about some kind of limited Palestinian statehood arrangement for years now. As Netanyahu points out, Ariel Sharon himself proposed this kind of arrangement last year. If an infamously "hard-line" sitting Prime Minister of Israel has come out in favor of limited Palestinian statehood, why is Netanyahu bothering to write this editorial now? There’s no political advantage to be gained in a potential future run against Sharon – he’s identifying his own views with Sharon’s, not articulating a distinction. The reason for yesterday’s Washington Post piece is this: to make clear to the world – in particular the United States and especially the Bush administration – that acceptance of Palestinian statehood, albeit in a limited form, is now the official position of the secular Israeli right-wing establishment.

This is a shrewd strategic move that takes advantage of the political landscape of the post-Saddam Middle East. By making a pro-Palestinian statehood position clear, the Israeli’s are putting the onus on the Palestinians and their Arab supporters to accommodate Israeli concerns regarding security. After all, Palestinian statehood has been – nominally at least – the issue all along, hasn’t it? Of course the Palestinians could reply that sovereignty is an all or nothing deal. If you’re not European, "limited statehood" looks like an oxymoron, and the drive for Palestinian statehood has more to do with national pride than a desire to secure a specific political status for individual Palestinians (e.g., citizens with constitutionally-protected rights). Relinquishing control of borders and airspace, and to some extent even international trade, to the Israelis will be a bitter pill to swallow for the vast majority of Palestinians who have been fed the Arafat shtick for so long. But there’s one very important party that cannot, with any plausibility, critique the limited statehood proposal on the basis of it’s offering the Palestinians less than full sovereignty – the United States. After effecting regime change in Iraq on the basis of a pre-emptive security policy, the Bush administration is in no position to put public pressure on Israel to sacrifice security to accommodate Palestinian sovereignty.

Another card in the Israeli’s hand in pushing for limited Palestinian statehood is the demonstrated impotence of the United Nations. If there is any counteroffer from the Palestinians demanding third party security responsibility, the UN can no longer be offered up as a serious candidate for that role. That leaves the United States as the only credible alternative, and that’s simply not going to happen, at least not under the current administration.

A successful Palestinian state, i.e., one that co-exists in relative peace with Israel, is the last thing many in the Mideast want – not just Arafat and Hamas etc., but also Arab tyrants who use the plight of the Palestinians to distract attention from the illegitimacy of their own regimes. For that reason we can expect continued terrorism against Israel (in the hopes that the slaughter of Israeli citizens and the inevitable reprisals will foster an environment in which a successful "peace" would be impossible), as well as lip service to the one demand to which the Israelis will never concede – the right of "return." The existence of Israel is a politically and psychologically freighted issue in the Arab world, and a real peace between Israel and its neighbors isn’t likely until the causes of Arab hatred for Israel (and the United States) are removed. A sober assessment of the situation cannot but lead one to the belief that most of these causes are endemic to contemporary Arab culture, and cultures don’t change over night. This is not a time for undue optimism about peace in the Middle East. In my opinion it would be a miracle if anyone alive today lives to see it. However, there is now, potentially at least, a fundamentally new dynamic at play in the "peace process": the carrot (Palestinian statehood -- now closer to reality than ever before) and stick (demonstrated Western willingness and ability to exert military force in the Mideast). This new dynamic is a direct result of the destabilization of the noxious status-quo ante in the Middle East achieved by operation Iraqi Freedom, and is likely to carry that destabilizing process further. How far it will go remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt the effect will be positive.


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