After decades of failed negotiations over a Palestinian state, it is tempting to imagine that the potential vote in the U.N. General Assembly on Palestinian statehood might help finally resolve one of the most vexing problems that the world has inherited from the previous century. And after all, that’s just how a Jewish state was born — by a U.N. General Assembly vote in 1947.
But a U.N. vote that seeks to bypass negotiations and impose a fait accompli on Israel will only undermine a two-state solution. By deepening Israel’s isolation, the vote will reinforce the sense among Israelis that this is not a time for concessions but for resolve.
As polls in recent years show, a majority of Israelis supports a two-state solution. And for good pragmatic reason: Israelis see a Palestinian state as an existential necessity for Israel itself, a means of preserving their country’s Jewish majority and democratic identity.
But that same majority also perceives a Palestinian state as a potential existential threat. Even primitive missiles launched from the West Bank hills against greater Tel Aviv would end normal life here. And should Israel then be forced to send its soldiers back into the West Bank, it would likely find itself judged — perhaps literally — in the court of world opinion.
That, after all, is what happened when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in 2009, even though Israel had withdrawn from Gaza four years earlier, only to be hit by thousands of rockets over its international border.
A Palestinian state, then, could create an untenable choice for Israel: learn to live with terror as a daily reality, or defend yourself and become a pariah.
In endorsing an imposed solution, the General Assembly would be telling Israelis that their security concerns are irrelevant. It is, in other words, far more important to the U.N. to create Arab state No. 22 than it is to ensure the safety of the lone Jewish state.
With its disdain for Israel, the U.N. has invalidated itself as a forum in which to try to heal the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel isn’t just condemned by the world body more than any other country; the Jewish state is condemned more often than all other countries combined. According to U.N. Watch in Geneva, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council has adopted, since its founding in 2006, about 70 resolutions condemning specific countries, 40 of which have been against Israel. In the General Assembly, about 20 anti-Israel resolutions are adopted each year, as opposed to five or six against other countries. That is not mere hostility but pathological obsession.
The vote to recognize Palestine will almost certainly increase anti-Israel violence in the region. It will also likely encourage the international boycott-Israel movement, which uniquely ostracizes the Jewish state. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has said that upgraded Palestinian status at the U.N. would “pave the way” to press for legal sanctions against Israel. The likely result would be to turn any Israeli act of war, even in self-defense, into a war crime.
Statehood is a responsibility to be earned. And so far the Palestinian national movement has hardly proved its willingness to live in peace beside Israel. Palestinian schools and media — those of Fatah as well as of Hamas — routinely portray Israel as an artificial and temporary creation, without any rootedness in the land. All of Jewish history — from the ancient temple in Jerusalem to the Holocaust — is dismissed as a lie. No Palestinian leader has told his people — as Israeli prime ministers since Yitzhak Rabin have told their people — that the land must be shared by two nations. Instead, Palestinian leaders have consistently told their people that the goal is a state on all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and they encourage their people to dream of a Middle East without Israel.
The U.N. vote comes at a time when Israelis are feeling increasingly besieged. In the last year, Israel’s closest regional ally, Turkey, has turned outright hostile; Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last week threatened to dispatch warships against Israel. The peace with Egypt is unraveling: Two weeks ago, as a mob ransacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo, Egyptian leaders refused to take desperate calls from their Israeli counterparts and dispatched commandos to rescue Israeli personnel only after American intervention. Israel evacuated its embassy in Amman, Jordan, over the weekend to avert a similar situation.
Meanwhile, terrorist enclaves on Israel’s borders — Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the south — aim tens of thousands of missiles at Israeli cities. And the Iranian regime, whose declared goal is the destruction of Israel, is moving ever closer to nuclear capability.
For many Israelis the sense of threat recalls May 1967, when Arab leaders vowing to destroy the Jewish state massed their armies on its borders. And while the international community remembers Israel’s stunning victory against those forces in June 1967, Israelis recall the terrible isolation of the weeks before, when even Israel’s friends offered little assistance.
Israel tends to take risks for peace when it believes the chance for peace is credible and when it senses a fair international climate. Israel withdrew from the Sinai desert — which is three times the size of Israel and which provided it with strategic protection — because Egyptian President Anwar Sadat convinced the Israeli public he was serious about peace. And when Eastern European and many Third World countries established diplomatic relations with Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Israel responded with an overture to the Palestine Liberation Organization that became the Oslo process.
But when the international community treats the Jewish state with contempt, Israelis tend to reciprocate. The result is a stiffening of hard-line attitudes.
In large measure, then, the future of a Palestinian state will be determined by whether Israelis perceive it more as existential necessity or as existential threat, and whether they feel the international community is receptive to their security concerns.
In one sense the U.N. vote is a useful reminder of the origins of the conflict. In 1947 the General Assembly voted for partition; it didn’t call for creating only a Jewish state but a Palestinian state as well. The Arab world rejected partition and tried to destroy Israel.
That rejection remains the core of the conflict. However problematic, settlements are not the main obstacle to an agreement. Both former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered to uproot dozens of settlements and concentrate the rest in “blocs” along the border to enable Palestinian territorial contiguity. Palestinian leaders dismissed those offers.
In endorsing a diplomatic process that ignores Israel, the U.N. would, in effect, affirm the Arab world’s attempt to erase Israel’s legitimacy. And by encouraging Israeli despair, it could help turn Palestine into a permanent virtual state.
By Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor at the New Republic.