How Netanyahu Could Have Stopped Palestinian Statehood Bid

Had the Israeli prime minister called Abbas's bluff, he would have saved his countrymen a world of hurt.

The countdown for the next bout of the Arab-Israeli conflict has begun with the Palestinian Authority's formal announcement this weekend that Mahmoud Abbas, its "president," will submit his people's declaration of statehood and request for full-fledged membership in the United Nations to secretary general Ban Ki-moon on 20 September.

The request will probably be turned down in the Security Council, where it will most likely encounter an American veto (and possibly other "nays" or, at least, abstentions, by European states), but will win a vast majority in the 193-member General Assembly.

Such a vote will grant powerful moral support to whatever moves on the ground the PA in the West Bank and the Hamas in Gaza contemplate immediately afterwards. These steps will probably include mass marches of West Bankers on Israeli settlements inside the territory and on the border fences that separate the two Palestinian-inhabited territories from pre-1967 Israel. In all likelihood Israeli Arabs will stage mass protests of their own inside Israel in support of their brothers across the Green Line and in celebration of Palestinian "independence." Both types of demonstrations are likely to be accompanied by violence and will most certainly trigger Israeli counterviolence, possibly initiating a full-blown third Intifada.

How the wider Arab world will respond is anyone's guess. But, in Israeli terms, little good can be expected to come of all this. Egypt, with an anti-Semitic Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, on the ascendant (the Hamas is the Brotherhood's Palestinian "sister" organization), will feel obliged to do something (fully open the border with Gaza? Withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv? Suspend the 1979 peace treaty with Israel?). Syria, in the throes of internal anti-regime tumult, may regard the events next door as a God-given boon to deflect attention away from the troubles at home and pose a political-military challenge along its border with the occupied Golan Heights. And Lebanon's Islamist Hezbollah militia may break its years-long quiescence (it suffered a sound trouncing, as, to a lesser extent, did Israel, in their 2006 face-off). The Iranians at the least will allow themselves a very broad and public smile as they continue their march toward nuclear weaponry.

Already half a year ago Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, described what is likely to unfold as a "political tsunami." And the head of the Opposition, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, this weekend squarely laid the blame for the corner into which Israel has painted itself at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's feet.

And without doubt she will be at least partly right: Netanyahu has blatantly and foolishly, almost frivolously, failed to play the game. He has failed to halt the settlement expansion in the West Bank and in and around East Jerusalem (last week yet another building project was approved by the Israeli government for East Jerusalem), giving the Palestinians their excuse for avoiding negotiations while angering the West. And Netanyahu has failed to publicly, clearly chart out the main lines of a territorial compromise (necessarily along the lines of the Clinton parameters of December 2000) that could serve as a basis for a two-state solution acceptable to Washington and Europe. Instead, Netanyahu has talked vaguely about his willingness to engage in "painful" concessions for peace, a formula that may sell well on the hill but has had little traction anywhere else.

Netanyahu has been foolish because he actually had, and still has, a very good hand, but he has failed to play it. Abbas has chosen to go to the UN and the court of world public opinion, dominated by Muslim and Third World countries which are either inherently hostile to Israel or ignorant about the ins and outs of the Arab-Israeli conflict, precisely in order to avoid a negotiation that could lead to a two-state agreement. All Netanyahu needed to do was to call the Palestinians' bluff—halt settlements and outline a realistic two-state proposal, based on the 1967 borders with some territorial swaps, and sit back and wait.

Abbas would still have refused to negotiate or tried to wiggle his way out of negotiating—he has no interest in a two-state solution and is unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish or legitimate entity (he has been clear on this point, consistently, since assuming office). Or he would have reluctantly entered into negotiations in bad faith and without serious intent. The moment the refugee issue would have been tabled—and Israel could have raised it immediately—Abbas would have blanched. Like all Palestinian (and, indeed, all Arab) leaders before him, he would have insisted on Israeli acceptance of the "Right of Return," and the West, or at least Washington, would have branded him as unreasonable and extremist.

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