Some people have lost sight of the notion of a win-win situation in the Middle East. We do have a lofty overarching notion that there are peace negotiations to get back to when everyone is sufficiently chummy again, but, at some level, we don’t truly believe this. The political paradigm there sees everything as (a) bad for Israel, (b) bad for the Palestinians (but necessary for Israel), or, quite simply, (c) bad for everyone.
There is near universal agreement that a Palestinian state, consisting of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, is part of the solution. Why is it, then, that there is any debate at all over recognition of it?
Recognition seems to have been slotted into the prevailing paradigm of punishments and rewards. Those who oppose it (for now) do so ostensibly because “it’s the wrong time”, which really translates to “the Palestinians haven’t earned it yet”. This is absurd — recognition of a state is merely an acknowledgement of its right to exist. The international community recognises the statehood of Somalia and the DR Congo, which have essentially been anarchies at various points. It recognises North Korea, whose democratic credentials are as convincing as its continual promises to annihilate the South. The Palestinian Authority itself may not be the world’s best example of stable, competent leadership, but is it really worse than the others listed here? Really? Does it have some way to go before it becomes as good as North Korea, Somalia and the DR Congo? It seems to me that the bar for statehood is normally pretty low.
The normal standards aren’t being applied, of course. Palestinian statehood is treated as an issue that must form part of negotiations with Israel. The 1993 Oslo accords say that a Palestinian state is the final outcome after successful negotiations. But why? Israel does not hold either the moral or practical authority to determine whether Palestine is recognised as a state. Recognition of Palestine, prior to successful negotiations, does not actually hurt Israel in any way, except insofar as its negotiators assumed they could use it as a bargaining chip. If we, as outsiders, defend Israel’s bargaining position — as distinct from Israel’s right to exist in peace and security — then we are not being even-handed, and so we cannot be taken seriously as facilitators of any agreement between the two sides.
It’s worth also briefly pointing out — in the spirit of even-handedness — that Israel itself is not recognised by a slew of countries across northern Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. This is also, of course, quite absurd. No other UN member nation has to put up with this (though there are other functioning states, including democracies, that have almost no recognition at all).
However, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) does recognise Israel, and the governing Palestinian Authority was established in the wake of this recognition. Hamas’s control of Gaza throws a small spanner in the works here. Hamas does not recognise Israel (though it does not any more call for Israel’s destruction as it and the PLO once did). This is rather counter-productive, but then Gaza is only part of Palestine.
Israeli government spokespeople also often complain that the Palestinians don’t yet recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The Israeli ambassador to the UN Ron Prosser echoed this:
The world waits for President Abbas to speak the truth that peace can only be achieved through negotiations by recognizing Israel as a Jewish State.
Prosser repeated this suggestion several times in his speech. It’s a rather unique demand. Surely no country has the right to be recognised as belonging exclusively to a particular religious group. This is especially the case for Israel, given the number of different religious groups for whom Jerusalem holds particular significance (and given Israel’s insistence that Jerusalem belongs exclusively to it).
Prosser’s next thought was this:
For as long as President Abbas prefers symbolism over reality… any hope of peace will be out of reach.
Right. So, there’s a limited supply of symbolism, and Israel needs it (see above) more than the Palestinians. Moreover, “peace” demands that Israel be recognised as a Jewish state, and simultaneously demands that Palestine not be recognised as a state at all. Ahem. Are we really having this conversation? Are we quite sure about the intellectual capabilities of the people carrying it out?
Clearly symbolism can be important, or else Israeli spokespeople wouldn’t be so concerned about international recognition of their nation’s religious character. For the Palestinians, recognition might help to mitigate the feeling of dispossession that fuels the desire for retaliation against Israel. It might take support away from Hamas — which would doubtless be a good thing — since their political foe Fatah is the party of President Abbas, who has driven the campaign for recognition and who will be credited with achieving UN “Observer” status. That is, this sort of initial symbolic gesture has political and psychological ripple effects, and may well lead to practical outcomes, even if the connection is extremely difficult to measure. It won’t stop the cycle of violence per se, but may help starve it of oxygen, circumstances permitting. Given that it costs nothing, why would we not do it?