Obama Must Follow Balfour on Palestinian State

By Uriel Abulof

There may be something new under the sun after all - at least since the days when Arthur Balfour promised the Jews a National Home in Palestine and Trygve Lie oversaw the UN General Assembly's endorsement of the partition of Palestine.

Last month, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, unveiled a government program "to establish a de facto state apparatus within the next two years," regardless of progress in negotiations with Israel. For the first time, the Palestinians have a leader who genuinely wants a state. While Yasser Arafat extolled that golden goal, he seemed more keen on state-destroying than state-building. The anti-Zionist revolution had dominated his ideological and practical agenda, overshadowing accommodation with Israel and the construction of a viable Palestinian polity.

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PA President Mahmoud Abbas followed suit. Just two weeks prior to Fayyad's declaration, Abbas led the Fatah Sixth General Conference, the first in twenty years, to resolutions that ratified its charter, which holds that "armed struggle is a strategy, not a tactic. ... This struggle will not stop until the Zionist entity is eliminated and Palestine is liberated." Admittedly, radical rhetoric often veils political pragmatism, and relatively moderate Fatah leaders are no exception. Talk and text, however, do reveal ideas and, in particular, an elite's perception of prevalent public opinion. The conference participants do not believe that their people are ready or willing to explicitly disengage from the anti-Zionist revolution, or to substitute a positive battle for a negative one. They may be right, but Fayyad seems to think otherwise.

Far from being a pro-Zionist, Fayyad put forth his own "disengagement plan," a proactive strategy for unilateral action to cut the conflict's Gordian knot. It might work. There remain only two roads not taken to a two-state solution: a pan-Palestine plebiscite, an all-inclusive referendum, which may create a foundation of popular legitimacy for such a solution; or else the creation of a Palestinian state before (hopefully) reaching peace. Achingly pragmatic, Fayyad chose the latter. Unwise allusions apart, Fayyad is following in the footsteps of the once glorious, but currently disintegrating, Zionist Labor movement (whose last real leader was, ironically enough, the comatose Ariel Sharon). "One more acre, one more goat," was its motto during the Zionist heydays of state-building, the construction of the "Yishuv" as an incipient Jewish state. Fayyad's bold attempt to re-embody the Zionist model depends on many factors, first and foremost on the Palestinian people. If the Palestinians want a state, they shall have it. The resolution of the West Bank population to eschew terror in favor of civil projects, notwithstanding the Hamas-Fatah strife, will determine much of the outcome. So will US policy.

Enter Obama's long-awaited speech at the opening of the 64th session of the UN General Assembly. Recent reports seem to indicate a growing inclination in the administration to include in the speech an explicit endorsement of Fayyad's plan: the establishment of a Palestinian state within two years, with or without peace. Obama seems keen on becoming the Lie of the 21st century. As the first elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, Lie chaired the United Nations General Assembly's endorsement of Resolution 181, the plan to partition Palestine into one Arab and one Jewish state. This is a tempting, but highly dangerous, proposition. Tempting, because it is partly right - if the Palestinians want a state, they should have it. Dangerous, because it is partly wrong - state-construction is a long and tedious process; one which the Palestinians have only recently begun. It can, and should, be facilitated, but shortcuts, and their potential cataclysmic offshoots must be avoided.

Once Obama puts the full weight of the U.S. behind an unconditional Palestinian state, with a definite two-year deadline, he pulls the rug out from under Israel's feet in the West Bank. In the eyes of Palestinians and Jewish settlers alike, Israel's government will instantly be transformed into an incarnation of the British Mandate in the twilight months that followed the November 1947 UN resolution. Formally, it is still the occupying force; practically, it lives on a borrowed time, with a defined expiration date: spring 2011. Israel's government, like the British Mandate, will cease to be an address; the U.S. and the UN will take its place. Radical Jewish settlers will now target the latter, rather than the Israeli public and leaders. Fighting over illegal outposts will become irrelevant. A whole different ball game will ensue, with militants aiming to show the world, and Obama in particular, that they will not yield. Guerrilla warfare may follow, turning the West Bank into a battle zone from which a Palestinian state may never emerge. Israel's government will find it hard to sit idle, and will likely engage, directly and indirectly, with the civil war, which may well escalate and percolate into Israel. Will U.S. soldiers then be called upon to open fire?

This scenario can, and must, be avoided. A Palestinian state may indeed be achieved only by bloodshed, but the Obama administration should do its best to minimize the risk of that. Now is not the time for Lie, but for Balfour. Obama's speech should follow the path of the late British statesman, promising to "view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the [Palestinian] people, and use [the U.S.'s] best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object. ..."

In two years, Lie's time may come.

Uriel Abulof is a Research Fellow at Princeton University's Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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