In their near-hysterical efforts to prevent Palestinians from asking the United Nations to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel and the United States have put forward a number of insupportable arguments that cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
The claim that the UN is not the appropriate address for bringing about Palestinian statehood that underlies the various legal, political and prudential arguments mustered against the Palestinian initiative can only be described as a lie. Not only was the UN set up to deal with issues of war and peace, it set the indisputable legal point of reference for all subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts—Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
Indeed, one of the main purposes of the UN was ending colonial domination and promoting the self-determination of native populations in former mandated territories. It is the UN’s action in its Partition Resolution of 1947 that established the legitimacy of a Jewish State of Israel in a part of Palestine, at the time a British mandate, a fact celebrated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. That same resolution established the legitimacy of Palestinian patrimony in an Arab state whose territory was twice as large as Palestinians claim for their state today.
Even more wrongheaded than the notion of the inappropriateness of bringing this issue to the UN is the alternative venue advocated by President Obama—a return to the deadlocked bilateral “peace process.” So far, this “peace process” has enabled the transfer of over half a million Jews from Israel into Palestinian territory and East Jerusalem, but not one square inch of Palestinian sovereignty.
There is an even more fundamental misrepresentation at play here: Security Council Resolution 242 declares unequivocally the impermissibility of acquiring territory as a result of war, no matter who started the war. What this means is that it is the party whose territory is under occupation whose consent to changes in the pre-conflict border must be obtained, not the consent of the occupying party. If the occupying power fails to obtain that consent, it must either return to the Security Council to obtain its permission to retain any part of that territory, or withdraw without any territorial changes. The assumption that in the absence of an agreement, the occupying power can retain its permanent hold on the occupied territories is absurd. But that is the absurdity that has defined America’s peace efforts—as well as the EU’s—to this day.
The alleged legal objection to the Palestinian initiative is that it violates the terms of the Oslo accords, which preclude measures by either party to resolve unilaterally any of the permanent status issues. If it were true, as Israel’s government maintains, that an impermissible unilateral measure frees the other party from the Oslo accords’ obligations, then Palestinians were freed of Oslo’s obligations long ago, for both the UN and the International Court of Justice have declared that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are not only impermissible unilateral acts but in clear violation of established international law.
More fundamentally, however, it is simply not true that the proposed Palestinian initiative violates the Oslo agreement. Palestinians do not intend to ask the UN to address any of the permanent status issues they are required to negotiate with Israel. If the UN were to declare that Palestinians have achieved the requirements of statehood—as they have in fact been found to have done by the IMF and the World Bank—and a Palestinian state were accepted into full UN membership, Palestinians would still have to reach agreement on each of the permanent status issues with Israel.
The United States and Israel have warned Palestinians to abandon their UN initiative on prudential grounds as well, for even if they were to succeed in obtaining UN recognition of their right to statehood in the Occupied Territories, nothing would change on the ground, for Israel’s government would be as indifferent to such a UN declaration as it has been to countless other UN directives. Indeed, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has threatened that in those circumstances Israel would feel free to annex far more West Bank territory than it already has.
But if were true that UN action would have no effect whatever in advancing the Palestinian cause, except perhaps to spur an even greater Israeli land grab, why is Israel engaged in such frantic efforts to prevent a UN showdown? Indeed, why does it not welcome the Palestinian initiative?
The answer is that what the Netanyahu/Lieberman government fears most is an international confirmation that the 1967 border is the point of reference for Israeli Palestinian territorial negotiations, for despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged acceptance of a two-state solution, he remains as committed to the retention of most if not all of the West Bank as are most other members of his government, most of whom belong to the “Whole Land of Israel Caucus” in Israel’s Knesset. (Imagine what would have been the U.S. reaction to a Palestinian parliamentary caucus for the retention of the “Whole Land of Palestine.”)
A formal UN designation of the 1967 border as the starting point of negotiations, especially if it includes a provision for “equal land swaps,” would likely spell the end of the Whole Land of Israel dream. For if Israel had to yield as much Israeli territory as it seeks to acquire from the Palestinians beyond the 1967 border, it would wind up with no more of the Land of Israel than it already possesses. That, too, is why Netanyahu behaved so outrageously in trying to get Obama to back down from his May 19 statement that the 1967 line and land swaps are the essential elements of a territorial agreement.
What is so shameful is that not only have we failed to support a legitimate Palestinian demand but we threaten to punish them severely for it by denying them further U.S. financial support. Have we ever issued such threats to Israel, even when its governments engaged in behavior considerably more reprehensible than turning to the UN?
We have put forward our democracy as a model for the rest of the world to follow. But in seeking to bludgeon Mahmoud Abbas into foregoing the United Nations and returning to predictably futile negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States is placing its diplomatic leverage at the service of Israeli policies aimed at preventing Palestinian democratic self-determination. That is how the world will see it, no matter how this administration will try to rationalize its actions at the UN in September.
Henry Siegman, President of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.