Paul Pillar

An Imposed Israeli-Palestinian Solution

After a brief, feckless detour aimed at getting a three-month pause in the decades-long process of unilateral Israeli colonization of occupied and disputed territory, the United States, the Palestinians, and Israel have eased back into a familiar and ineffective routine. George Mitchell has packed his bags again and on Monday started yet another round of listening to the two protagonists talking at, or past, each other.

For some worthwhile thoughts about a possible way to get off this hamster wheel, see Robert Wright's piece in Tuesday's New York Times. Wright disagrees with Secretary of State Clinton's declaration, in her speech last Friday on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that outsiders cannot impose a solution. He suggests that outsiders can do exactly that, and that while the United States needs to take a leading role, the United Nations provides the appropriate framework. In doing so, he makes two points that particularly deserve notice.

One is, “The United Nations created a Jewish state six decades ago, and it can create a Palestinian state now.” Despite all the hostility that Israelis have perceived through the years at the United Nations and especially the General Assembly, they are aware that the U.N. partition plan of 1947 is the only international charter providing for their state's existence. It is the closest thing Israel has to the Treaty of Paris in which Britain recognized the independence of the United States, or to the other formal grants of independence that many former colonies elsewhere have from European powers. Of course, in the Arab-Israeli war in the late 1940s Israeli forces seized and retained substantially more of Palestine than the partition plan had allotted to the new Jewish state. Then in a later war they seized the rest. But for all that has been said through the years about Israel's legitimacy and right to exist, that legitimacy and that right still rest on the U.N. plan.

New action by the United Nations, as an amendment to that earlier plan, is actually necessary not only to create a Palestinian state but also to finish the process of creating a Jewish one. No one—not Fatah or the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas—is talking about returning to the lines of the 1947 plan. So Israel does not have internationally recognized borders—not even the borders of 1967, let alone any adjustments of those borders that would bring any West Bank settlements into Israel. A new U.N. resolution would provide such borders.

The other major point concerns the political cover that an approach centered on the United Nations would provide to President Obama. Wright acknowledges that Obama would “have to endure some noise from America’s Israel lobby.” But, Wright argues, at least the President would

have to put on his noise-canceling headphones only twice: (1) when he agreed to explore this path with other members of the “quartet” — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations; (2) when the quartet, having produced a plan, handed it to the Security Council, at which point America would vote for it, or at least not veto it.

This approach may underestimate the power of the lobby to derail whatever it is determined to derail. No one has lost money betting on the ability of the lobby to do that. I am still profoundly pessimistic about getting off the hamster wheel in the foreseeable future. But one can always hope. Seeing a possible course of action that makes diplomatic and legal as well as political sense is one basis for such hope. Another basis is the belief that there must be a good number of Israelis and friends of Israel in the United States who realize that the course of the current rightist government in Israel, which also is the course supported by the lobby, condemns Israel in the longer term to a status in which it cannot be both Jewish and democratic. It is a course in which Israel will indefinitely be an isolated, militarized state managing an apartheid system in which Palestinians will always be seen as a restive threat.