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Why the U.S. Should Support Palestinian Statehood at the U.N.

The Obama administration, after failing to head off a Palestinian request to the Security Council for United Nations membership, is prepared to use its veto against it. In an undistinguished address to the General Assembly on Wednesday, President Barack Obama advised the Palestinians to bypass the UN and to confine their campaign for statehood to negotiations with Israel. Obama’s position would have made sense if the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu had made generous offers at the negotiating table that the Palestinians have been spurning, but the Netanyahu government has not; and there is little likelihood, in the absence of a dramatic change of heart, that it will do so. By threatening a veto, Obama appeared to contradict his past support for Palestinian self-determination.

Since 1919, the United States has favored in principle, if not always in practice, the national self-determination of peoples. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush applied it to the Palestinians’ demand for a state of their own; and Obama has done so repeatedly. Given the breakdown in negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinians, and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the U.S. could have reaffirmed its support for Palestinian self-determination by supporting Palestinian membership in the UNor at the least, an orderly and imminent transition toward membership. That may not have been politically expedient, but it would have been politically just.

Moreover, it would have followed an important historical precedent. Behind Obama’s current stance lurks an unpleasant irony. In 1947, the United States faced a very similar situation in the UN and took exactly the opposite position—to the benefit of Palestine’s Jewish population. After World War I, the British had maneuvered the new League of Nations into granting them a mandate to rule Palestine, but in February 1947, after having failed to get the Jews and the Arabs to agree on a future state, the British threw the question of Palestine into the hands of the newly established United Nations. In May of that year, the General Assembly established a committee to make recommendations on resolving the conflict.

At the UN, the Arabs insisted, as they had in talks with the British, on a unitary Arab majority state, but officials from the Jewish Agency, representing Palestine’s Jews, argued for a partitioned Palestine. They looked to the United States for support, but the Truman administration was initially unwilling to give it. Within the Truman administration, some White House officials backed partition, but influential State Department and Pentagon officials held out the hope of bringing the Jews and Arabs together within a federation. In September of 1947, Truman decided to back the Zionist demand for a state in part of Palestine, and American representatives were able to win support within the committee and the General Assembly for a plan that within three years would have created two states and an internationalized Jerusalem. That didn’t establish at once a Jewish majority state, but was a very important step toward doing so.

The U.S. did, I believe, the right thing. Perhaps in 1919, there was not as strong a moral case for a Jewish-controlled state in a land inhabited primarily—about 90 percent—by Arab Muslims and Christians. (A case could be made for a homeland for the persecuted from Russia’s Pale of Settlement, but not necessarily for a state, and certainly not, as Zionists of the time advocated, a state that encompassed what would be Palestine and Jordan.) But the Nazi-led genocide in Central Europe that began in the 1930s and the restrictions that Western Europe, the United States, and the British Commonwealth nations placed on Jewish immigration made Palestine the only recourse for Europe’s Jews. By the end of World War II, there was a geographical and economic basis for a divided Palestine. Jews made up about 30 percent of the population and were concentrated in Jerusalem and on the coast. The Jews, with the Arabs opposed to negotiations and to Jewish immigration into Palestine, urged the UN to agree to partition, and the United States, after some hesitation, supported them.

Now the situation is reversed. After the 1967 war, Israel annexed Jerusalem, took control over the West Bank and Gaza, and began establishing settlements there in violation of the Geneva rules of war and in defiance of UN resolutions. Whatever their original purpose—and some of the earliest settlements had a rationale coming out of 1967 war—the settlements have evolved into an attempt by the Israelis to colonize land that is not theirs, to create incontrovertible facts on the ground that no treaty can contradict. There are now about 500,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In 1993, the PLO, which the UN acknowledges as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, recognized the existence of Israel, and since then negotiations have taken place fitfully, with both sides stalling, equivocating, and sending mixed signals. Certainly, in retrospect, Yasser Arafat should have been more forthcoming during the Camp David talks in 2000, but the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza had increased by 70 percent from 1993 to 2000, sowing considerable distrust among Palestinians. Subsequently the Arabs, with Hamas and other radical Islamist groups playing an important role, conducted a disastrous Second Intifada, to which the Israeli government responded by destroying much of the Palestinian governmental infrastructure created during the 1990s.

Still, the negotiations that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas conducted from 2006 to 2008 managed to build upon the foundations that were established at Camp David and Taba in the last month of the Clinton administration, producing a basic set of proposals for a negotiated settlement. The deal would be based on the 1967 borders, the dismantling of the outposts, land swaps for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian control of East Jerusalem, and the virtual abandonment of the Palestinian right to return.

But the Netanyahu government, which took office in March 2009, refused from the beginning to build on these negotiations. Netanyahu took three months even to utter the phrase “Palestinian state,” and leaders of his Likud party, and members of his coalition, remain opposed to a Palestinian state. He insisted that negotiations start from scratch, refusing to agree even to the 1967 boundaries as a starting point. The Obama administration asked him to accept a freeze on settlement construction as a good faith gesture to Abbas and the Palestinians. He initially refused, and then acceded to a loophole-ridden temporary ten month freeze that his government proceeded to violate. And after the moratorium expired, Netanyahu has gone on a construction binge in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while concocting new conditions for a Palestinian state, including an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.

Abbas, backed by the United States, has asked the Israelis to maintain the freeze on settlements. That’s a perfectly reasonable demand and condition for negotiations. Increasing settlement construction during negotiations for a two-state solution is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire that you have promised to put out. When Netanyahu would not agree to stop construction, and when he refused to recognize the pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiation, Abbas and the PLO gave up hope of a negotiated settlement, and sought the help of the United Nations in achieving recognition for their attempts to gain a state of their own. Whether or not this move turns out to have been tactically wise, the Palestinians were within their rights to take it.

The United Nations was founded to make good on the ideal of national self-determination. It’s in Article One of the UN Charter. It has done so at its very beginning with Indonesia and Jewish Palestine, as well as more recently in Southern Sudan. Why not Arab Palestine? And why should the United States block such an effort? I have heard some arguments for why the United States should not favor UN membership for Palestine, but they sound very much like arguments for why the United States should not favor a Palestinian state at all. Moreover, they are the sorts of arguments that easily could have been used in 1947 against UN support for a Jewish majority state.

The United States, it is said, should not assist Palestinians in gaining membership at the UN because some Palestinians still don’t recognize the right of Israel to exist. But guess what? In 1947, there were Zionists identified with the Revisionist movement (parts of which later came together to create Likud) who denied the right of Palestinians to a state. They wanted all of Palestine and even Jordan for a Jewish state; and some of them were willing to use terror and assassination to achieve their ends. And there are still many Israelis who deny the right of Palestinians to a state. That didn’t preclude our helping Palestine’s Jews achieve statehood through the UN, and it shouldn’t impede our helping the Palestinians.

By seeking to win statehood through UN recognition and assistance, the Palestinian leadership is visibly underscoring its commitment to a two-state solution; by doing that, and by rejecting a strategy based on terror and violence for one based on negotiation and multilateral assistance from the United Nations (which, again, was created to resolve exactly the kind of conflict that is occurring between the Israelis and the Palestinians), it is potentially marginalizing Hamas. By backing the Palestinians at the UN, the United States would be making good on its own commitment to a two-state solution achieved peacefully rather than through terror and violence.

Of course, one has to consider whether it would have been in America’s national interest to further the formation of a Palestinian state through the UN. I have heard arguments that if the Palestinians had gained UN recognition, that would have made the Netanyahu administration very angry and less amenable to negotiations. But if you believe that the Netanyahu government is already resistant to any meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, then support for a Palestinian state at the UN would more likely have helped than hindered negotiations: After all, it was pressure from the United States and Europe after the first Gulf War in 1991 that led to the Madrid talks, which led eventually to the negotiations in Oslo between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Moreover, America’s standing in the world could only have been improved by being on the side of a Palestinian state. It would have removed an important talking point for Islamic radicals; it would have allied the United States with the reform forces of the Arab Spring, who, as has become clear in Egypt, are very critical of the continued Israeli occupation. American support could also have helped forestall the sort of explosive reaction among Arab publics that might follow rejection of the Palestinian bid in the Security Council. And backing Palestinian statehood would have put the United States in a position to work constructively with European and Middle Eastern countries, many of whom are hoping to see an end to the century-long standoff in Palestine and now Israel. Instead, Obama’s stand has made the United States an outlier in the region. We are identified not so much with Israel (which we have rightly defended against attack from other states), but with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and with the expansionist ambitions of the Israeli rightwing.

I recognize that it was very unlikely that the Obama administration would back the Palestinians at the UN. Well before this month, the Obama administration had begun to abandon its forthright advocacy of a Palestinian state. Its demand that the Israelis “stop” settlement activity had given way to a demand that the Netanyahu government “restrain” its expansion into the West Bank. And last February, Obama’s administration vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the Israelis for continuing to expand settlements in occupied territory. Why has it continued to back away? Well, it might have been a genuine change of conviction, but it might have also been, as Thomas Friedman has suggested, re-election pressures on a politically embattled presidency.  

As far as the Palestinians’ UN bid was concerned, there are very powerful lobbies contending for the title “pro-Israel” that have opposed the Palestinians’ efforts at the UN.   They include not only AIPAC, but also J-Street, which began as a bold alternative to AIPAC, but has ended up mimicking its subservience to Israeli aims. There is also strong opposition from rightwing Christian groups who support a greater Israel. The Republican Study Committee is circulating a proposal to recognize Israeli annexation of the West Bank in response to the U.N. granting membership to a Palestinian state. Republican presidential candidates (who probably could have cared less twenty years ago) are denouncing Obama for “throwing Israel under the bus” (Romney) and “appeasement” (Perry). That bears out how crazy American politics have become—and not just on debts and the deficit.    

Still, if the Obama administration had wanted to do what is right, and not what would spare it the slings and arrows of its domestic critics, it should not have rebuffed the Palestinians for appealing to the UN. The U.S. did the right thing in 1947. Why not have done it in 2011?

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.