Later this month, the Palestinian Authority intends to go before the United Nations to request recognition of an independent Palestinian state. Although there is strong backing for the bid, the United States, in the name of supporting Israel, has stated its willingness to use its Security Council veto power to keep the Palestinians from joining the U.N. as a full voting member. The U.S. has also refused to join in a more symbolic General Assembly vote that could change the Palestinians' status from a "nonvoting observer entity" to a "nonvoting observer state."
Here are five reasons why the U.S. should support the Palestinian bid and not exercise its veto at the U.N.
Negotiations have failed.
Two decades of negotiations have not brought the Palestinians a state of their own. Israelis and Palestinians blame each other for the current impasse.
But the question of who is at fault is irrelevant. What matters is that in 1993, when the Oslo accords set up a framework for a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution, there were a little more than 100,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. Now that number stands at more than 300,000. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, about half a million Israelis now live "over the Green Line" in what is designated as the future Palestinian state. Every day the Palestinians wait for a negotiated state, another sliver of that state is absorbed into Israel. A few more years and practically nothing will remain.
The current Likud-led Israeli government is unlikely to ever agree to a sovereign Palestinian state.
A decade ago, Benjamin Netanyahu, vying for Likud Party leadership, made his position clear in a speech to the group's central committee: "My friends," he said in 2002, " we must present the situation in the clearest possible way: We won't lend a hand to the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.... We must vote as one in favor of the draft resolution against a Palestinian state."
It is true that seven years later, under intense pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu, as Israeli prime minister, grudgingly accepted the notion of a Palestinian state in principle. But the unprecedented conditions he called for — that it have no military, no control over its borders, no capital in East Jerusalem, no right of return for Palestinian refugees and that it recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" — seemed deliberately designed to negate the possibility of true Palestinian sovereignty.
Even if Netanyahu were to begin pushing for a Palestinian state, it is highly unlikely that his ultra-right-wing coalition would allow him to succeed. Indeed, immediately after Netanyahu's 2009 speech, powerful members of his party demanded that he retract his statement entertaining the possibility of a Palestinian state. As one of Likud's most influential Knesset members, Danny Danon, vowed: "I will attempt to cause this sentence, which was said under American pressure, never to come into being."
President Obama has utterly failed to advance the Middle East peace process.
Obama came into office vowing a more active and evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Yet beyond a few lofty speeches about Palestinian suffering, he has offered no substantive policy shifts or specific proposals for moving negotiations forward. Obama's attempt to temporarily stop Israel from building settlements in the occupied territories backfired when he caved in to Israeli intransigence. The administration then had the nerve to veto a nonbinding U.N. resolution condemning the very settlements Obama himself had condemned. The president's barely newsworthy suggestion that negotiations for a two-state solution be based on the 1967 borders with land swaps (which, as the basis for the Oslo accords, has been the principle advanced, if not publicly announced, by every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter) was ridiculed by the Israeli prime minister, and in the Capitol building, no less. The president's kowtowing to Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing has made the U.S. look weak on the global stage. If for no other reason than to prove to the world that the U.S. is not Israel's lap dog, the president should refrain from vetoing a Palestinian state.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not political suicide to defy the will of Israel.
There is no doubt that American public opinion remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel. But polls show that the majority of Americans believe the U.S. should not favor one side over the other in the conflict. Among thoughtful leaders in the media, military and foreign affairs, there has been a consensus that our policy toward Israel is severely damaging America's interests and image around the world. According to a 2008 J Street poll, 78% of American Jews said they supported a two-state solution and 81% wanted the U.S. to pressure both sides to end the conflict.
Of course, the Republicans will try to paint Obama and the Democrats as "anti-Israel" if the president fails to veto the U.N. vote. But this has been a consistent strategy on the part of the GOP for years, and it has always failed. In any case, the same J Street poll found that only 8% of Jews cite Israel as an issue in deciding whom to vote for for president.
Palestinians are doing almost exactly what Israelis did 60 years ago.
Israel maintains that the Palestinians cannot declare statehood and seal it through the U.N. Yet the Palestinians are merely following the trail blazed by Israel six decades ago. In 1948, after the U.N. voted for the partition of Palestine, debate among the world powers about how to divide the land dragged on and violence between Jews and Arabs grew worse. The Jewish Agency simply preempted negotiations and unilaterally declared the state of Israel; the United States immediately recognized it, and the U.N. accepted Israeli sovereignty the following year.
The Palestinian Authority has come to the same conclusion that the Jews apparently came to in 1948: Negotiations will not lead to an independent state; the only way forward is unilateral action. By rejecting that strategy outright, Israel is not only being hypocritical; it is invalidating its own existence as a state.
There is one more reason to support the Palestinians' bid at the United Nations. It is the moral thing to do. During his first presidential campaign, Obama said, "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." Now, he has the opportunity to live up to his own beliefs and promises, and to provide the Palestinian people with the same sense of dignity that Harry Truman gave Israel 60 years ago.
By Reza Aslan, the founder of AslanMedia.com and the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.