(Bloomberg) — The Palestinian national liberation movement has arguably been the least successful such movement of the past 100 years. The Arabs have tried on many occasions to defeat Israel militarily, and to break it through terrorism and boycotts, and have failed each time.
Even so, independence was within reach of the Palestinians at many different points in their history. The Jews in Palestine, early in the arc of political Zionism, sought simply to live as an autonomous minority within an Arab entity. The Arabs rejected the idea — some violently — and the Jews abandoned the notion.
The United Nations offered statehood to the Arabs in Palestine in 1947. The Arabs chose the path of war, and threatened the Jews with annihilation. Then they lost the war. Arab states controlled the West Bank and Gaza until 1967, but did nothing at all to advance the cause of Palestinian rights. After the Six Day War in June of that year, many Israelis hoped that Arab leaders would offer peace in exchange for occupied territory. That idea was rejected.
At Camp David, in 2000, Bill Clinton came closer than anyone to engineering the creation of a Palestinian state. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, turned his back on Clinton without even making a counteroffer. More recently, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, a similar deal. Abbas rejected it.
Now Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, plans to ask the UN to recognize an independent state of Palestine. The request, whether granted or not (the General Assembly will support the notion; success at the Security Council is unlikely), will only defer the goal of an independent Palestine.
The support of Togo and Bolivia and Yemen would surely give Abbas a warm and happy feeling, but it will be irrelevant to the Palestinian cause. Abbas says he seeks a state for his people on the West Bank and in Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem. If that’s true, then there are only two member states of the UN that can bring it about: Israel and the U.S. Neither supports this resolution. Most Israelis view it as an attempt to limit their options in future negotiations, or to deny to them the holiest sites of the Jewish people and delegitimize the idea of a Jewish state.
Symbolic and Counterproductive
The U.S. opposes Abbas’s resolution — and will veto it if it reaches the Security Council — but not because the U.S. rejects the idea of a Palestinian state. President Barack Obama has been sincere in his support of Palestinian independence. The U.S. opposes the resolution because it would represent yet another entirely symbolic and counterproductive gesture in the long history of Palestinian gesture-making.
“This is about shortcutting a process for which there are no shortcuts,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told me. “At the end of the day, there’s only one way to create two states for two peoples, and that is negotiations.”
Rice went on, “To have a drama that changes very little in the world vis-a-vis the actual conflict, and then to expect that while one party is taking this great victory lap the other party is going to run to the negotiating table, is not necessarily realistic.”
A Tragic Moment
The particular tragedy of this moment is that there is, for the first time, a pragmatic alternative to the fantasy-based approach to independence of Arafat and Abbas. During the past few years, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad (ostensibly Abbas’s No. 2, though the men are said to detest each other), has quietly built a security force that has restored law and order on the West Bank and stopped terrorists from attacking Israelis. He has built the framework for transparent governance, and created an increasingly viable economy. He has expressed repeatedly his distaste for Abbas’s UN recognition campaign, understanding — as Obama and Rice understand — that it will hurt the cause it claims to help.
Fayyad has the potential to be the David Ben Gurion of the Palestinians — a pragmatist, like Israel’s founding prime minister, who builds the structures of a state in advance of statehood, as a means of showing the world that Palestine will be a viable and constructive addition to the community of nations. But Abbas’s UN campaign threatens the entire project.
Another threat to Fayyad’s aspirations, to be sure, is the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his exceedingly right-wing coalition. Netanyahu has not done much to suggest to Palestinians that negotiations would bear fruit. But Abbas has been Netanyahu’s partner in paralysis. Two points have been obscured by the drama at the UN: Abbas, not Netanyahu, is the leader who has refused to enter negotiations without conditions. And Abbas is seeking something at the UN that was already offered to the Palestinians — and rejected by them.
Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations has noted that Abbas is ostensibly seeking UN recognition because he prefers to negotiate as the leader of an independent state. But the Palestinians were offered independence with “provisional borders” in the now- forgotten 2003 peace talks known as the Roadmap. “The Palestinian leadership,” Danin wrote, “long rejected this option, fearing that establishing a state prior to resolving all outstanding final status issues with Israel would leave them unresolved in perpetuity.” Now Abbas is seeking an even more symbolic form of independence.
The True Goal
What, then, is Abbas’s true goal? It may be nothing more than an attempt to ensure his legacy, or to marginalize rivals like Fayyad. But he recently said something revealing: “We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years.”
The occupation, as it is generally understood, did not begin 63 years ago. Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza 44 years ago. Sixty-three years ago is when Israel itself was founded. If Abbas’s goal at the UN is the enfranchisement of his people, then he will not succeed. If his goal to demonize and delegitimize his enemy, then he very well might.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)