Declaring Palestinian Statehood

By Aryeh Tepper
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Palestinian political figures, said to be frustrated with the pace and trajectory of peace talks with Israel, have increasingly made noises about taking matters into their own hands and unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state.  In practical terms, this means implementing Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plan for Palestinian independence first unveiled in August 2009. According to that plan, the Palestinians would devote two years to developing the infrastructure of their embryonic state, including in areas under full Israeli control, at the conclusion of which the Palestinian state would be a fact on the ground lacking only international recognition.

How exactly would they secure that recognition? Once their fledgling state was in place, the Palestinians would take their case to the UN while also seeking the de facto endorsement of Western powers, especially from within the European Union. In going down this path they would be following the lead of the breakaway province of Kosovo that in 2008 unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. That declaration was the culmination of a twelve-year process that began with the 1996-99 war between Muslim Kosovars and Christian Serbs and followed eight years in which the region was administered by the United Nations. Even though fewer than 40 percent of UN member states now recognize Kosovo's independence, the U.K., France, Germany, and the U.S. were quick to grant official recognition, and from Kosovo's perspective these are the countries that count. The Palestinians agree.

And where did Palestinians get the idea of imitating Kosovo? Not on their own, it seems. Instead, like so many mischievous and reckless ideas of our era, this one was the gift of European diplomats. According to Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator, the notion was first proposed to the Palestinians in 2008 by Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, and was soon echoed by others. Adding fuel, a 2009 EU document raised the possibility of unilaterally recognizing east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. More recently still, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, averred that "one cannot rule out in principle" Security Council recognition of Palestinian independence.

One might be forgiven for questioning this unwonted passion for "cowboy" action on the part of Europeans otherwise famous for their devotion to multilateral solutions for complex international problems. The key would once again seem to be Kosovo. More particularly, the key would seem to lie in the diplomatic lessons drawn from that earlier conflict by one Richard Goldstone—the same Goldstone who in 2009 would lead the notorious UN "fact-finding" mission on the Gaza conflict. In 1999-2001, Goldstone chaired the Independent International Commission on Kosovo; according to his own account, one of the main lessons of that war was, precisely, the need for strong-willed, preemptive, diplomatic action by the "international community" on behalf of those whose human rights are being violated.

As with Kosovo then, so with Palestinians now—or so the reasoning appears to run. Preemptive, unilateral action must be the international community's  weapon of choice when the principle of self-determination meets the "internationalization of human rights."

It would be all too easy to point to the hypocrisy of European advocates of this sort of behavior, what with their long history of expressing shock and disapproval at any American or Israeli resort to "unilateralism" (in, be it noted, self-defense). It would be no less easy to point to their selectivity in picking the beneficiaries of their high-minded solicitude. Pacifying the Muslim Kosovars with statehood was an obvious move for Europeans rattled by the potential of spreading violence on their doorstep, and an especially opportune one at a moment when the Serbs had been successfully branded as international pariahs. The parallels with Israel and the Palestinians, as attractive as they are facile and false, must have seemed irresistible.    

The Netanyahu administration takes the threat of Palestinian unilateralism seriously, and has reportedly asked for a U.S. commitment to veto any initiative in that direction at the UN Security Council. One might add that, around the world, countries like India, China, Russia, and perhaps even Spain and Turkey, all of which face the threat of restive minorities within their borders, have much to fear if unilateralism gains further validity as a tool of international diplomacy. Where Israel in particular is concerned, the push for a UN-backed imposed solution takes its place among several recently opened fronts in the political war on the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty. The fact that such mischief-making could result in threatening the stability of European states themselves, if not the entire global order, is just further testimony that, when anti-Israel passions are in the air, anything goes.


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