Obama and the Coming Palestinian State

Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, for 21 months the centerpiece of Obama administration Middle East policy, are moving inevitably toward collapse. The talks may limp past our Nov. 2 election, but they are doomed to fail.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) fully understands that the talks--and the "two state solution"--will fail. It needs a plan B. Accordingly, several ideas are circulating to skip bothersome negotiations with Israel and move immediately to Palestinian "statehood."

Two different tactical approaches have emerged. In one, the PA would persuade the United States to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, within the pre-1967 cease-fire lines (often characterized, wrongly, as "borders"). The other option would have the United Nations Security Council call upon U.N. members to recognize "Palestine" within those lines. Critical to this second tactic is a U.S. commitment either to support such a Security Council resolution or, at a minimum, not to veto it.

The Obama administration has a jaundiced view of Israel, but actual U.S. recognition of "Palestine" seems a remote prospect in the near term.

In many respects, these and related gambits hearken back to the Palestinian Liberation Organization's (PLO) 1988 declaration of statehood, which was recognized by dozens of U.N. members, including many in Europe. The PLO then tried capitalizing on the declaration by seeking membership in U.N. agencies like the World Health Organization, which require members to be "states." In this way, the PLO sought to create "facts on the ground" in the international arena that it hadn't been able to establish through force.

Those efforts failed because of Washington's determined opposition within the U.N. system, and the overall effort faded away. The PLO gained no new legitimacy, although it did change its General Assembly nameplate from "Palestine Liberation Organization" to "Palestine," which passes for substance at the U.N.

This time is different. Once past Nov. 2 and faced with the impending and embarrassing collapse of direct talks, President Obama may well be moved to punish Israel or at least fashion a teachable moment out of his diplomatic failure.

The Obama administration has a jaundiced view of Israel, but actual U.S. recognition of "Palestine" seems a remote prospect in the near term. The domestic political firestorm for the president--already likely to be badly wounded in midterm elections and deeply concerned about his own prospects in two years--would simply be too much.

A more indirect but still effective course is to let statehood emerge through a Security Council resolution. Prior U.S. administrations would unquestionably have voted "no," thus vetoing such a proposal, but Mr. Obama's penchant for publicly pressuring Israel is a foreshadow that Washington may decide not to play its traditional role. While even Mr. Obama is unlikely to instruct a "yes" vote on a Security Council resolution affirming a Palestinian state and subsequent U.N. membership, one could readily envision the administration abstaining. That would allow a near-certain majority, perhaps 14-0, to adopt the resolution.

Israel would then confront a dramatic change in its international posture, facing a political equivalency with the new state of Palestine. What's more, customary international law's definition of "statehood" requires that a putative state have clear boundaries. This is why the potential Security Council resolution would refer to Palestine as a state within the "1967 borders," or some such language.

Border delineation is a zero-sum game. Right now, as in 1988-89, "Palestine" has no real borders, other than those around the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Moreover, Israel has long contended that it would never return to its pre-1967 configuration, and would instead insist on secure and defensible borders. Its extensive West Bank settlements and fortifications are concrete proof of its determination.

A Security Council resolution fixing the 1967 lines as borders would call into question even Israel's legitimacy, dramatically undercutting prospects for security and defensibility. By defining "Palestine" to include territory Israel considers its own, such a resolution would delegitimize both Israel's authority and settlements beyond the 1967 lines, and its goal of an undivided Jerusalem as its capital.

Mr. Obama has unmistakably left open the possibility of defaulting to the 1967 borders. In his September 2009 speech at the U.N., for example, he supported a Palestinian state "with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967."

No one should underestimate the gravity of this threat to Israel's position, although Mr. Obama could eliminate it at a stroke if he chooses to speak out. We will soon see how hostile to Israel he is prepared to be.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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John R.
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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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