Last week the US House of Representatives adopted a resolution threatening a potential cutoff of aid to the Palestinians if they unilaterally declared statehood. It was essentially meaningless bluster, taking a strong stance against something the Palestinians aren’t currently pursuing or even seriously considering.
The real context of resolution is not Palestinian unilateralism, but multilateralism and, especially, bilateralism, and there’s a big difference between the three. Most Palestinian officials acknowledge that as an occupied people with the deck stacked against them, they haven’t got the power to do very much unilaterally.
In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) unilaterally declared an independent Palestinian state in the pre-June 1967 borders. Many developing countries recognized that state. But nothing happened. The only real consequence was to make any future unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence possibly look like a repetition of this embarrassing failure.
The Palestinians are also aware that the physical presence of the formidable Israeli military in the occupied territories means that, as a practical matter, Palestinian independence ultimately depends on Israeli acquiescence, however reluctant; on their own, the Palestinians are unlikely to be able to achieve it. So it’s always been obvious that third-party intervention is essential. During most of the past two decades, both Palestinians and Israelis have looked mainly to the United States, and there is no doubt that in the final analysis an American role as broker and more, is simply indispensable.
However, in the past couple of years, faced with diplomatic impasses, Palestinians have been developing a creative set of new strategies to augment these indispensable negotiations – notably state-building, nonviolent protests and settlement boycotts. They have also been pursuing multilateral and bilateral recognition, but not the unilateralism denounced by the US Congress.
The first efforts, aimed at upgrading the status of Palestinian representation in various UN bodies, were largely blocked by the United States on the grounds that they bypassed the negotiating process. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton recently warned Palestinians that “unilateral efforts at the United Nations are not helpful and undermine trust.”
Actually, such efforts aren’t unilateral at all, they are multilateral. It’s not surprising that Washington would view such efforts as a kind of end-run around the negotiating process it oversees, but it clearly makes sense for Palestinians to try to enhance their global diplomatic status in preparation for what Clinton has described as “inevitable” Palestinian statehood.
Importantly, the secretary didn’t say anything about the main effort currently being pursued by Palestinian diplomats, which is a series of upgrades to bilateral diplomatic relations. This has most spectacularly borne fruit in Latin America, with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia all having recognized Palestine within its 1967 borders in recent weeks. More recognitions are expected to follow shortly. In addition, Norway, France and other European countries had been quietly upgrading the diplomatic status of the PLO missions in their countries.
Slowly but surely, the world is adding Palestine to the roster of fully recognized countries and laying the groundwork for its future admission as a member state of the United Nations. If the Americans are annoyed by this, they’re not saying so publicly. It’s not clear why they should be. Since Washington views Palestinian statehood as “inevitable,” and in the end this can only be achieved with Israeli acquiescence and through negotiations, the US role as primary midwife in the birth of this new state is unchallengeable.
Palestinian unilateralism on independence has already proven its pointlessness back in the 1980s, and the Kosovo model – unilaterally declared independence immediately recognized and supported by most of the world’s most powerful countries – isn’t really available to them, at least at this stage. However, this diplomatic offensive for recognition is not only purposive and meaningful; it dovetails perfectly with state-building and, indeed, with American-brokered negotiations with Israel.
The Israelis may be annoyed, but as they continue settlement construction in violation of international law, the “road map” and clearly stated American and international opposition, they’re not in any position to be wagging fingers at anybody about complicating delicate diplomacy.
Palestinians obviously have to pursue negotiations aimed at an agreement with Israel that secures its acquiescence to Palestinian independence. But at the same time, it is vital for the Palestinians to pour as much energy as possible into state-building that prepares them for that independence; to continue pursuing measures that challenge the abusive practices of the occupation; and to seek to upgrade their diplomatic status multilaterally and bilaterally.
Palestinian statehood is becoming inevitable as Clinton says. Diplomatic recognition of that necessary, indispensable state-in-the-making from countries in Latin America and elsewhere, no matter how much it might annoy the Israelis, is simply another recognition of that fact and an important step in the right direction.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com.