Since the topic du jour is the UN vote to grant observer-state status to Palestine, I thought I’d weigh in with my two cents. Former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh argues at Foreign Policy that the Palestinian UN bid is actually a good thing for Israel by foreclosing a one-state solution, and I agree with much of what he says in his piece (although I think he is letting his politics get in the way of his objective judgement in blaming Bibi Netanyahu for placing conditions on negotiations rather than acknowledging that it was actually Mahmoud Abbas who imposed a set of preconditions that ended up freezing talks). Whether the Palestinian UN bid is good for Israel or bad for Israel though is in many ways academic, because the reality of the situation is that the UN vote today has almost no relevance to either side. If Israel or the Palestinian Authority thinks that this will mark any type of turning point in how the world conceives of Palestinian statehood, they are both delusional.
To begin with, the most important element for Palestinian statehood is whether or not people think of Palestine as being an independent state-like entity, and the world crossed the Rubicon on that issue long ago. A couple of decades ago, the West Bank and Gaza were almost uniformly referred to as the Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Territories, and only the most ardent partisan supporters of Palestinian statehood referred to Palestine. After the Oslo Accords, which were intended to be the first step on the road to Palestinian autonomy and which created the Palestinian Authority, the discourse began to change a bit and the term Palestine began gaining more currency, but most importantly people began to view the West Bank and Gaza as resembling a state since there was a Palestinian legislature, a president, and other political institutions that one associates with a state. In the subsequent two decades since Oslo, the term Palestine has gone from being a loaded political term to one that most of the world uses in a casually obvious manner, and it is difficult for me to recall the last time I heard the West Bank or Gaza called the Palestinian Territories in any ubiquitous way. What matters for Palestinian statehood is whether people think of the West Bank as constituting a Palestinian state rather than whether an entity called Palestine is a “permanent observer” or “non-member state permanent observer” at the UN. In this case, the dominant casual discourse is more important than international institution legalese.
Second, in 2012 the facts on the ground carry more weight than a UN declaration. Like I said, the Palestinian Authority has a president, a police force, the ability to collect and disburse revenues, ministers with different cabinet portfolios, and a host of other institutions that we associate with states. Partisans aside, most casual observers would look at the West Bank and dub it a separate state irrespective of what the UN thinks. I’ll let you in on another inconvenient fact, which is that Hamas is well on its way to a similar situation in Gaza. Hamas rules Gaza under the auspices of a prime minister, it runs a government with its own headquarters that levies taxes and issues permits, and it ostensibly participates in the Palestinian Legislative Council. As I pointed out last week, Hamas runs Gaza like a separate state and that situation is here to stay, and despite the fact that the UN is unlikely to ever recognize a Hamas-run state in Gaza, plenty of other countries already have. The Qatari emir and Egyptian prime minister have traveled to Gaza on official state visits, and Turkish PM Erdoğan has announced that he might do the same at any time. As much as nobody wants to admit it, Gaza is being treated in some quarters like a de facto state and this trend is only going to grow, and it illustrates again how perception and actions matter a lot more than a UN blessing.
There is an argument to be made that Israel’s primary concern here is that granting Palestine non-member state status will open the door toward prosecution of Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court, but Mark Goldberg has convincingly thrown cold water on that theory by pointing out the ICC prosecutor’s leeway in accepting or declining cases and highlighting the types of cases that have currently been brought before the court. I’m not as sure as he is that prosecuting Israelis would lead to European states withholding funding for the ICC, but I’d throw in the fact that if Palestinians go after Israel at the ICC, Palestinian officials are then opening themselves up to their own charges before the ICC as well, so it is very much a double edged sword. Given all of the above, if I were Israel not only would I not waste any time or effort trying to fight today’s vote, I would actually vote for Palestinian statehood as well. Doing so would go a long way toward rebutting criticism that Israel is not genuinely interested in allowing for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, it would remove from the table an easy issue that people use to bash Israel, and it would create one less headache for the U.S. Israel is fighting a losing uphill battle on the statehood issue, and a meaningless UN vote is not going to change that one way or the other. The only way out is to begin serious negotiations with the PA and get out of the West Bank as soon as is humanly possible, and by dragging things out and losing one public relations battle after another, Israel is not doing itself any good.