Recognizing Israel, Recognizing Palestine: Legitimate or False Parallels?

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November 1, 2011
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Ronald W. Zweig

The intention of the Palestinian Authority to win recognition of a Palestinian state delimited by the borders of June 4, 1967 is intended to, and very likely will, upset the applecart of deadlocked negotiations between the emerging state of Palestine and the State of Israel. The outcome on the ground is unpredictable: It may destabilize the relatively quiet existing status quo, leading to demonstrations and violence. But it could also jump-start the stalled negotiating process. Where one stands on the spectrum of prophetic punditry may be a litmus test of one’s own politics: Opponents of the two-state solution as well as proponents of a greatly reduced Palestinian state all decry the intention of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to bring the issue to the United Nations. The current stalemate allows for continued growth of the settlements (1,600 new housing units approved for Ramat Shlomo in August alone) as well as continued consolidation of the settler population. Disrupting the stalemate is clearly not in their interests.

Those who support a two-state solution based on the borders of 1967 with agreed adjustments, however, should pause to consider the parallels between this U.N. debate and the Partition debate of November 1947. While the historical contexts are completely different and offer no meaningful factual parallels, scrutinizing the processes can be useful. When the British government turned to the U.N. in 1947, the Zionist movement was in the throes of a deep internal debate: Was the Yishuv ready for independence? Could it stand on its own economically, socially, militarily? The Jewish community had flourished under the protection of the British Mandate. Had the time arrived to move from dependency to independence? This question was always present in the internal debates of the Zionist movement, and was openly discussed at the Paris meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive in August 1946. Only when the question was resolved in the affirmative after four days of debate did the Zionist movement begin the process that brought the Jewish state into existence — not as an aspiration but as a fact. The unavoidable loss of British protection was one concern. Another was the territorial compromise necessary to obtain recognition of Jewish independence. By accepting partition, the Jewish side announced its willingness to abandon its claims to large parts of the Land of Israel. The vote on November 29, 1947 effectively ended the debate on both these considerations. The Zionists would abandon their dream of a Jewish state in all the Land of Israel in exchange for the best compromise deal possible. There were, of course, opponents within the Jewish camp to these concessions, but the realists were able to ride the wave of international endorsement once the U.N. adopted partition, and were able to forge ahead with preparations for statehood. All this occurred in the face of abiding Arab opposition to both partition and any Jewish sovereignty.

A parallel process is taking place now in the Palestinian national movement. By calling for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state on the other side of the 1967 borders, the moderate leadership in Ramallah is asking for the support of the international community to overcome the opponents of historic compromise within its own camp. It is also suggesting that the institution-building process that created the means of government and the growth of the Palestinian economy has now reached the point where they can give up the protective wings of NGOs and other bodies assisting the Palestinian Authority in running Palestinian affairs (including the Israel Defense Forces). A U.N. vote for the creation of a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 will strengthen the moderate leadership against Hamas, and the public enthusiasm that the vote will evoke will be a blow to the objectives of the extremists.

Prophecy is a dangerous business, and a U.N. vote will certainly destabilize the current situation — just as it did in the aftermath of 1947. But the Palestinian acceptance of the borders of 1967 works both ways, and it will actually be a huge achievement for Israeli interests. It is exactly what Israeli diplomacy has aspired to since 1949. And, in view of the failure of both sides to resolve their differences in direct talks, it may well be the next step toward an end to the conflict. Parallels between 1947 and 2011 are not only seductive, they can also be instructive.

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Ronald W. Zweig is the Marilyn and Henry Taub Professor of Israel Studies at New York University.

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