Israelis and Palestinians need a new peace paradigm. The true significance of the Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state is that final-status talks based on the Oslo accords have run their course and failed. By placing future Israeli-Palestinian contacts on a state-to-state basis, U.N. recognition could help lay the foundation for that paradigm.
The conventional wisdom is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigent behavior has driven the Palestinians to take the international track. But that hardly offers a complete explanation for this revolution in the Palestinian approach.
More significantly, P.L.O. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ experience in direct negotiations with Ehud Olmert, then Israel’s prime minister, in 2008 — following on the first final-status failure in 2000 at Camp David between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat — was an eye-opener for the Palestinian leader.
He confronted the most far-reaching Israeli peace proposal yet offered concerning refugees and holy places, yet he rejected it because it was still far from his and his constituents’ core demands on these issues.
That made it clear that the Oslo formula of linking all final-status issues in an agreement would continue to founder on these two issues. The disputes that arise from 1967 — territory, statehood, security — have proven relatively amenable to agreement. But the differences grounded in both sides’ deeper historical narratives are the real reason for 18 years of failed efforts.
As Israelis understand it, the Palestinian demand that Israel recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return requires a tacit acknowledgement that the state of Israel was “born in sin” in 1948. And the Palestinian assertion that “there never was a temple on the Temple Mount,” and that therefore Israel has no inherent rights there, is perceived as a denial of Israel’s national and historical roots.
No Israeli leader will acquiesce in these Palestinian positions, and no bridging formula has proven workable. These negotiating gaps are, as Abbas himself acknowledged in 2009, “too wide.”
Thus Abbas has turned to the United Nations not only because the Palestinian state-building enterprise in the West Bank has proved successful, but also because it is clear that Oslo-based final-status negotiations, even if they reconvene, cannot succeed in ending all claims. In this sense, it is Abbas’ intransigence on a full final status package, no less than Netanyahu’s, that has brought us to the United Nations.
Yet here the two part company: Abbas appears genuinely to want progress toward a viable two-state solution, while Netanyahu’s ideology and the composition of his coalition signal intransigence.
Abbas is leading the Palestinians to the United Nations in the full knowledge that there he will be making the substantive concessions that his principles and his constituents do not allow him to make in bilateral talks.
At the United Nations — in contrast to bilateral negotiations — Abbas is prepared to accept international determination of the 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem as the defining parameters of a Palestinian state, with the refugees and holy places left to further negotiations.
Even if Israel and Palestine subsequently fail to agree on these “deal-breakers,” with their central role in each side’s national narrative, we still emerge from the United Nations with a two-state reality and a far more manageable conflict.
For all its pitfalls and problems, Abbas is offering Israel a very attractive trade-off at the United Nations in return for the 1967 lines and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. When he squares off against an Israeli leader as president of the territorially defined state of Palestine, rather than as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization with its roots in the refugee issue, the paradigm will have changed.
This reality explains the futility of all the American and European attempts to get the two parties back to the Oslo-based negotiating table. The Oslo final-status paradigm has exhausted its usefulness. Better to adopt the state-to-state paradigm while Oslo autonomy still offers a modicum of stability on the ground.
Ideally, the Palestinian request for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state can be leveraged into a two-state agreement that serves Israel’s vital needs, as well as those of the Palestinians.
If that doesn’t work, the primary international challenge of the months following the U.N. drama will be to forge a new post-Oslo state-to-state paradigm, then deliver it to the two parties.
By Yossi Alpher, co-editor of bitterlemons.net. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.