Middle East

Viewpoint: How not to create a Palestinian state

Israelis hold their national flag during a one-minute silence on May 8, 2011 to mark Remembrance Day
Image caption For many Israelis a Palestinian state is seen as an existential threat

Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli author and political commentator, argues that all the Palestinians need to do to get a state is to convince Israelis that this state does not represent a threat.

Palestinian leaders are presenting their bid for upgraded UN status as a desperate move prompted by Israeli intransigence. In asserting this they are counting on the amnesia of the international community.

Twice in the last decade Israeli leaders - Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 - have accepted Palestinian statehood.

Dozens of settlements would have been uprooted and others concentrated in blocs along the border, in exchange for which Palestine would have received compensatory territory from within Israel proper.

The result would have been a contiguous Palestinian state in the equivalent of the territory taken by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

Palestinian leaders effectively said no.

That's because the deal would have required one significant reciprocal concession: confining the return of the descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war to a Palestinian state.

Internal collapse

The main obstacle to an agreement, then, is not territory or settlements but the Palestinian insistence on the "right" to demographically destroy the Jewish state. Absurdly, the Palestinian leadership is demanding that Palestinians immigrate not only to a Palestinian state but also to a neighbouring state, Israel.

That demand, of course, would lead to the internal collapse of the Jewish state - which is precisely the goal. This is why Palestinian leaders have rejected President Barack Obama's call that they recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

In a final agreement, Palestinians living in the diaspora will have the option of coming home to Palestine - just as Jews in their diaspora have the option of coming home to Israel. That is the essence of a two-state solution.

Also, compensation should be offered to descendants of Palestinian refugees and to descendants of the nearly one million Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries and came, destitute, to Israel.

Those are the kinds of details that need to be worked out in negotiations. The UN vote is an attempt by Palestinian leaders to evade their side's concessions in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal.

Existential threat

A majority of Israelis recognise that ongoing occupation is devastating and that a peaceful Palestinian state is an existential need for Israel.

But that same majority also fears that a Palestinian state could be an existential threat.

The Israeli nightmare is that missiles - even primitive ones - launched from the West Bank highlands onto greater Tel Aviv would end normal life in this country. Should Israel then attempt to defend itself, the international community would brand it a war criminal.

Those fears are well-founded. In 2005, Israel uprooted all its settlements in Gaza and withdrew to the international border. For many Israeli centrists, that was a test case for a possible withdrawal from the West Bank.

The results were disastrous. Thousands of missiles fell on Israeli towns and villages along the Gaza border. Finally, four years after withdrawing, the Israeli army was sent back into Gaza to stop the attacks.

The international community reacted with disproportionate outrage - including the creation of a biased UN commission of inquiry headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, who recently retracted some of his conclusions.

Deepening Israeli fears

Israel's dilemma is unique. It is, on the one hand, the only democracy that is also an occupier - a situation forced on the Jewish state by the Arab world's attempts to destroy it in 1967, but which has taken on an increasingly permanent nature.

On the other hand, Israel is the only country living under a death threat issued by some of its most powerful neighbours, like Iran. Israel is the only country expected to trade strategic assets for mere recognition of its right to exist.

Potentially, Palestinians have no greater ally in their political empowerment than the centrist majority of Israelis, who want to end the occupation. The key, then, to Palestinian empowerment is to convince Israelis that it would be safe to do so.

Palestinian leaders need to prove that Palestine won't be a stage in a long-term attempt to undermine the viability of the Jewish state - either through the demographic subversion of refugee return or through terror attacks on the Israeli heartland.

Instead of encouraging Palestinian rejectionism and fantasies of a "right of return" to the Jewish state, the international community should be asking Palestinian leaders some hard questions: Why have you rejected every offer for statehood - going back decades? And do you really expect Israeli Jews to accept an agreement that would threaten the only state in the world in which the Jewish people is sovereign?

The UN vote will only reinforce Israeli fears about a Palestinian state. The inevitable result will be to deepen the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy and distance us even further from a peaceful and mutually just solution.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (Harper Perennial, 2002).

Tomorrow, Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center, argues that the fundamental failures and hollowness of the US-led diplomacy forced Palestinian leaders to resort to trying to gain full UN membership.