If the Palestinians unilaterally declare a State of Palestine this year as they say they will, everything changes. This is not the first time they have announced such an intention: twelve years ago they proposed the same thing but took it no further. This time it seems they mean to do what they say, and if they do, all resolutions, agreements, proposals made in the past for the ending of the Arab-Israeli conflict by negotiation become instantly irrelevant. Resolution 242, Oslo, the Road Map … all will be dead.
The UN Security Council Resolution 242, pursuant to which the parties were to negotiate a settlement, envisaged the establishment of borders within which Israelis should be able to live in peace. Forty-four years have passed, and Israel’s borders are still not fixed and Israelis still do not live in peace.
The Oslo Accords called for a five-year transitional period in which Israel would withdraw forces from occupied territories and accept the creation of a Palestinian Authority in exchange for security undertakings by the Palestinians. This arrangement was supposed to lead to a permanent peace settlement. The agreement was signed September 17, 1993. More than seventeen years later a peace settlement is no nearer.
The Road Map for Peace – “a performance-based roadmap to a permanent two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict” – was put forward by “the Quartet” of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, on September 17, 2002. More than eight years have passed and the conflict continues.
There have also been the failed Camp David and Taba Summits - July 2000 and January 2001 - which were likewise concerned with Israel’s borders. And the Arab Peace Initiative, 2002 and 2007, had the same aims and met with the same failure.
Now the establishment of a State of Palestine, recognized by many if not all other countries, means there will be no more of all that. No more discussion of the “right of return” of Arab refugees. No more “land for peace”. And no more negotiations under international auspices over where borders should be drawn.
The Palestinians want to declare a state without defining their borders. Temporarily, they say, they will claim all the territory of erstwhile Mandate Palestine outside the armistice lines of 1949, drawn when Israel survived the invasion of Arab armies and won its War of Independence. (These lines are commonly referred to as “the 1967 borders,” meaning those Israel had until it fought off invasion in the Six Day War of June 1967, and expanded its territory by conquest.)
Why only temporarily? With those frontiers, wouldn’t the Palestinians have all the territory the world considers they have a right to?
Oh, yes. And that’s what they fear. If they accept those borders as permanent, they will have accepted Israel’s permanent borders too. They will have accepted the existence of the State of Israel, so there would be no pretext for refusing peace. And that is what they have resisted doing all these years since the Arabs rejected Resolution 181 of November 1947 which offered a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel and went to war instead.
In order to have peace, Israel went on proposing the creation of a Palestinians state as an inducement to the Arabs to agree on secure borders. Over and over again, the Palestinians balked. In all the years that they have been negotiating under Resolution 242, the very last thing the Palestinians wanted was an agreement on borders.
The boundaries they will declare for their state are temporary not because they are willing to concede territory in negotiation, but for the very opposite reason: because they want all the territory. They want their state to consist of Judea, Samaria, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Israel - the whole of the country that is now Israel. Israel will be dissolved in the State of Palestine. It will be abolished. That is what the Arabs have always wanted and continue to want - the abolition of the State of Israel.
It is glaringly obvious that what Israel needs to do is define and declare its own bordersnow. But surprisingly is seems that the Israeli government is not thinking of making that vital move. If the news out of Israel is to be believed, they don’t seem to be considering the implications of the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, and so cannot grasp the fact that with it everything changes.
They are allowing the Palestinian Authority to dangle them on a string. But why would Israel allow itself to be kept dangling while the Palestinians decide where their state will be and, therefore, where Israel will be – especially since Israel knows perfectly well that the ultimate intention of the Arab side is to wipe it off the map? Why are Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government waiting, as though in shocked disbelief or denial, for the PA to act? Do they not believe that the State of Palestine will be declared? Do they think it will not happen because the US will veto it in the Security Council? True, the Obama administration would have a hard time from Congress and American public opinion if it did not oppose the unilateral declaration, but its veto cannot be relied on. Only under heavy pressure from both parties in Congress was it reluctantly used against the recent Security Council resolution condemning Jewish settlements as illegal.
This is the moment for the Israelis finally to decide for themselves on their own frontiers, having earned that right with victory in three defensive wars. They should declare them to be permanent. Nothing within them would be negotiable. Israel would offer all those within its borders residency or citizenship, but it would not be required to let in any citizens of a foreign state. There could be no question of a “right of return” for Palestinians. This is the time, now, before the Palestinians declare their state - and even if they do not - for Israel to draw the line: this far and no further. This is where we are; whom we let in is our business; how we protect ourselves is in our hands, not our enemies’.
There could be no more talk then of “occupation” and so none of a “right of resistance”. The territories brought within Israeli sovereignty would be part of Israel. Any insurrection from people within the state would be dealt with according to Israeli law.
If there are Jewish settlements left out of the declared borders of Israel, the residents can decide whether they want to stay where they are and live in Palestine (a risky choice, and one that the Palestinians may not allow them), or move to Israel. Equally, Arab citizens of Israel should be free to stay or move.
Once Israel has defined and declared its borders, and asserted control over them, its security will be in its own hands and no longer held hostage in negotiations. Any future dispute over borders with neighboring states will need to be settled the way border disputes between states are always settled: by diplomacy or war. The issue will no longer be concerned with population majorities, no longer clouded by perceptions that superior force used against irregular militants is illegal. It will be state against state. If Israel is attacked, its defense will be legitimate and seen to be legitimate.
Meanwhile the Palestinians can get on with the business of building institutions for their state without being able to claim that the presence of Jews in settlements interferes with its viability. The institutions of statehood put in place by the Palestinians will determine the viability of the Palestinian state, not the presence of Jewish settlements. The talk of wobbly frontiers round disconnected cantons, the cry of “Bantustan” and “ghetto”, the complaint over “viability”, raised as a pretext not to accept borders, will have to come to a stop.
It may be that the Palestinians will find good governance and economic success sufficient to dull the desire to undo the Naqba (their “disaster” of 1948, when Israel came into existence). Until then, let the Palestinians have their state, and, if they choose, continued war with Israel; but they will have to bring the war to Israel’s borders. It will no longer be plausible to call it a war of “liberation” - and that might mean that it will pall as a pet cause for international humanitarians. In any case, the likelihood of a Palestinian state making war alone on Israel is not high. That Iran might join it is another story.
Jillian Becker is the former Director of the London-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism and author of "The PLO: The Rise and Fall of the Palestine Liberation Organization," St. Martin's Press, New York.
C. Gee is a lawyer who has made a special study of the Arab-Israeli conflict.