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Editorial

Face-off at the U.N.

A Palestinian nation must come into being. But the looming vote in the U.N. cannot create one.

September 20, 2011

The looming United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood is not a cause for celebration — for Palestinians or anyone else. It is merely further evidence of the utter stalemate of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which once promised to deliver a two-state solution but which during the last few years has deteriorated into a depressing morass.

The U.N. vote, assuming it takes place, will be mostly symbolic. Whether it ends in a Security Council veto or a successful follow-up in the General Assembly, it will not, in fact, result in the imminent creation of an independent Palestinian state. When the vote is over, Israel will still control the territory it controls now, settlements will continue to dot the West Bank, and Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will remain suspicious rivals fighting to lead a stateless people. The Israeli occupation will not come screeching to an end.

So is the vote something that a reasonable person should support or oppose? In our view, a Palestinian nation must eventually come into being. That's what the two-state solution is all about — two states. Sooner rather than later, Israel must relinquish the lands it has occupied for a stunning 44 years, and the Palestinians must be granted the right to self-determination that other people take for granted.

In principle, then, we would have no objection if the world chose to express its support for statehood, a move that many believe will strengthen the moral and legal case for it. What's more, we recognize that in asking for this vote, the Palestinians, once best known around the world for airplane hijackings and suicide bombings, are using nonviolent, diplomatic means to achieve their aims. Whether they stop after asking the Security Council for full U.N. membership or go on to seek an elevation of their observer status in the General Assembly, they certainly don't deserve to be punished or have their economic aid cut off for doing so.

What holds us back from an unequivocal endorsement of the U.N. vote is concern that the symbolic value of the move will not outweigh its real-life costs. The practical reality is that the only way a Palestinian state will be created (and thrive) is through good-faith, face-to-face negotiations between the two parties that result in a mutually agreeable compromise that both sides have the incentive and the will to abide by. Bypassing talks with Israel and seeking U.N. support for statehood is understandably appealing to those frustrated by the recalcitrance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, but there's no guarantee that it will push the process forward rather than set it back.

Will a vote in the United Nations, for instance, be taken by the Israelis as a signal that the Palestinians have abandoned the Oslo process — and make them even less inclined to come to the table? It shouldn't have that effect, but if it does, that's counterproductive. Will it lead the U.S. Congress to cut off aid to the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority is already having trouble paying its bills? Again, it shouldn't, but if it does, it will only weaken moderate Palestinian leaders. Will a vote in the Security Council — and the almost certain American veto of it — provoke violence or make it difficult for the U.S. and the Palestinians to work together in the future? Will a vote in the General Assembly make it easier for the Palestinians to join organizations such as the International Criminal Court, as Israel fears, and therefore to bring war crimes charges against Israel? If so, that seems unlikely to warm up relations or promote cooperation. Would a resolution in the General Assembly include specific details about the borders of the new Palestinian state or about the property rights of millions of Palestinian refugees still living in camps in neighboring Arab countries — and if so, will those details lock in future negotiators and make compromise solutions harder to achieve?

No one knows the answers to those questions. But this much is obvious: No matter what happens in the Security Council or the General Assembly, the top priority must be to bring the two sides back to the table.

It is true that negotiations have gone nowhere in recent years. Both Israel and the Palestinians deserve a portion of the blame for that. The Palestinians are divided, their leaders in Ramallah are weak and unpopular, their militants retain the ability to sabotage progress, and on the street, frustration continues to grow. What's more, even the more moderate leaders in the Palestinian Authority have done little to prepare their people for peace with Israel, whose existence and borders they must learn to accept. As for Israel, its current leaders seem only halfheartedly committed to a two-state solution, and its refusal to halt its inflammatory settlement activity (which has continued steadily since the Six-Day War in 1967) has helped ensure the failure of peace talks.

It is not a promising moment. And there are many people who have lost patience, wishing a pox on both houses. But this conflict, a central political drama of the last 100 years and a strategically critical element in the creation of a stronger, healthier Middle East, is too important to ignore. Regardless of what happens at the United Nations in the weeks ahead, the two sides must resume direct talks and get back to the difficult business of building an independent, economically viable, politically stable Palestine that can live alongside a safe and secure Israel.

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