Yasser Arafat declared an independent state of Palestine in 1988. This state was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly that same year. So what’s the big deal about the current agitation for another such declaration?
Well, Arafat’s declaration specified nothing about particular territorial claims. Moreover, it called for negotiations under existing UN resolutions to establish the borders of this state. As such, the political significance of the declaration was that it signaled the PLO’s formal acceptance of a two-state solution in principle.
As we learned after the Oslo Accords, acceptance in principle is very different from acceptance in fact, and the Arafat tenure as head of the Palestinian Authority was not characterized by the kind of institution-building that could have laid the foundations for an actual independent state. (He’s not alone to blame for that – Israel did many things to undermine the development of such a state – but it is difficult to identify anything Arafat did to lay those foundations, suggesting that it was not really a goal of his to do so.)
A decade after that first Palestinian declaration, during the last Netanyahu government, Arafat began to mutter about another declaration. Netanyahu openly dared Arafat to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood. The rationale was very simple. Such a declaration would have been a violation of the Oslo Accords. Israel would respond to this unilateralism by seizing whatever chunks of the West Bank it most wanted to retain – the Jordan Valley, the major settlement blocs, etc. Israel would surround and choke the new Palestinian state. But: there would no longer be any question of a Palestinian “right to return” to sovereign Israeli territory – because there would be a declared Palestinian state for them to “return” to if they so chose. And there would no longer be any question of a “one state solution” – there was a declared Palestinian state; the two-state solution would be a fact. Negotiations, when and if they resumed, would be about borders, security, etc. – what would the Palestinians be willing to give up in order to get (some) of the West Bank back and Israeli recognition. Those are exactly the terms Israel would want to be negotiating on, if and when negotiations resumed.
Of course, the diplomatic fallout in the region would have been horrendous – but Netanyahu has never worried about that. He would have been dealing a serious blow to the credibility of the Clinton Administration, which had painstakingly tried to shepherd both sides towards some kind of final status agreement – but Netanyahu has never worried about that either; he spent much of the 1990s trying to figure out how to ditch the American alliance while keeping his friends on the American right.
Most likely, though, Netanyahu knew no declaration would be forthcoming; he understood that Arafat’s threat to declare statehood was a bluff, and he was simply calling it.
Now we’re back again with the possibility of a Palestinian declaration of independence, which would likely be endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. One might ask: what could possibly be the significance of such a declaration? How would it be different from 1988? The major difference is that, this time, there is a government – the Palestinian Authority – that has (partial) control of territory making the declaration. Moreover, the declaration would clearly be a claim to Palestinian sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza. The declaration would be a prelude to organizing pressure from governments around the world against Israel, aiming at forcing it to withdraw to the pre-June 1967 boundaries. The symbolism of the 1988 declaration was: the PLO accepts the principle of partition. The symbolism of a 2011 declaration would be: the terms of partition were set in 1949.
Formally, the Netanyahu government is lobbying fiercely against such a declaration. But notwithstanding this, such a declaration is probably in the interests of the Netanyahu government, and Bibi undoubtedly knows this. Anything that heats up the conflict probably bolsters the right in Israel. Netanyahu has shown very little concern for the possibility of diplomatic isolation; indeed, he continues to work hard to try to sever what few relatively friendly relationships Israel already has. And a Palestinian declaration would provide the pretext for the Netanyahu government to seize what it wants to keep, and to establish parameters for future negotiations (if any) on terms they prefer. Abbas might claim all of the West Bank, but how many divisions does he have? Meanwhile, by declaring the West Bank and Gaza to be Palestinian sovereign territory, there is implicit recognition of Israeli sovereignty elsewhere. And, of course, if the declaration is never made, then Netanyahu looks like he forced Abbas to back down, which also strengthens him.
So why on earth are the Palestinians considering another declaration?
It’s something of a desperation move, but it also reflects the interests of the Abbas government. Mahmoud Abbas has staked his historical reputation on securing some kind of permanent legacy for the Palestinian people. He is making a similar choice to the one Ben Gurion made in response to the Peel Commission: take something – anything – that would constitute sovereignty, even if the territory is far less than you wanted or thought you might achieve. Get something that is your own, that you can build on.
The United States stands to lose the most in the short-term from a Palestinian declaration. Such a declaration would mean the end of the Oslo process that we have invested so much in. It would place the United States in a very uncomfortable position vis-a-vis our European and Middle Eastern allies; Israel will come under pressure post-declaration to expeditiously exit the West Bank (which would be recognized by much of the world as sovereign Palestinian territory), but will stoutly refuse to bow to such pressure, leaving America stuck in the middle. America will, undoubtedly, not even recognize a Palestinian state, which will make it exceptionally difficult for us to continue to try to be a broker between the two sides, but our non-recognition will stand out like a sore thumb once the bulk of the world has extended such recognition.
In the longer term, though, it’s the continuation of the conflict that creates problems for America. So whether a Palestinian declaration is bad in the long term depends on whether it makes it more or less likely for the conflict to finally be resolved. And that, in turn, depends on whether Abbas’s gamble pays off – whether he can midwife a Palestinian sovereignty that is actually functional and viewed as a modest success. If he can, then Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians would be “normalized” – it would be a conflict between two states rather than a conflict within a state. And the former type of conflicts are much more amenable to negotiated solutions than the latter. So that’s another way that a declaration would serve the interests of Abbas: even though it would represent a kind of slap to the Americans (who have urged him strongly not to go this route), it would tie his fate even more closely to American interests.
And, contra Daniel Larison, it’s not clear that the Palestinian diaspora would materially suffer from a declaration. One must ask what, exactly, the Palestinian diaspora has ever gained by the strategy followed since 1949. Israel is never going to accept a Palestinian “right to return” as part of a negotiated process. The chimera of such a right, however, has been a real obstacle to achieving a final settlement, and therefore achieving anything concrete either for Palestinians in Palestine or for Palestinians in the diaspora. A statehood declaration would sever the negotiating link between the Palestinian diaspora and the Palestinian state. They would be revealed to be separate questions. Which, in fact, they are: the interests of Palestinians in Palestine and Palestinians in the diaspora are wildly out of alignment. Severing the connection might actually make it possible to make some kind of progress on a more realistic framework for compensating Palestinians in the diaspora. It’ll feel like a huge blow, of course. But it might be a blow that opens the path to actual, material progress. And nothing would prevent the Palestinian diaspora from maintaining a strong, supportive connection with a new Palestinian state. (Indeed, such a connection would be vital to any success that state might have.)
A declaration is a high-risk gamble by Abbas, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Boxing Abbas into a situation where he feels he needs to make this kind of desperate gamble is itself a gamble by the Netanyahu government – a gamble that Israel would be better off more deeply isolated but in a stronger negotiating position. It’s not at all surprising that Netanyahu would take that gamble; it’s consistent with everything about his leadership history.
The certain short-term losers are the Americans. Which is why we’re so opposed. But it’s not clear to me how much of what we stand to lose is actually a new loss, and how much is recognition of a loss we’ve been saddled with for some time. And sometimes, recognizing a loss that’s been sitting on your books can be clarifying.