US cool to bald declaration of an independent Palestine

US warns of 'unilateral' actions by either side: Palestinians declaring an independent Palestine or Israel expanding Jewish settlements in Jerusalem.

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP
Members of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas' security forces take part in a march to mark the 21st anniversary of the self-declared Palestinian Independence Day in the West Bank city of Tulkarem, Sunday.

The crash-landing of President Obama's high-profile push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has resulted in one idea almost no one seems to like: that the Palestinians simply declare their long-envisioned and much-discussed state of Palestine.

But some influential Palestinians (and even a few Israelis) are floating some variation of the idea of moving quickly – in a year or two or less – to a declared independent Palestine, and working out the details from there.

The Palestinian proposal is being raised in foreign capitals just as the White House issued one of its harshest rebukes of Israeli actions, saying it is "dismayed" at plans approved Tuesday for Israeli settlement construction in Jerusalem.

The idea for simply declaring a state of Palestine is born largely of the frustration of the Palestinians' Fatah leadership over the lack of any progress towards the vaunted "two-state solution" – and within the reality of the inexorable march of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

No international backing for the idea

Yet as logical as the proposal may seem to some, no one from the international community is jumping to endorse it.

The European Union this week called the idea "premature" and the United States is expected to smother it if the idea advances to the United Nations Security Council.

"This is basically the Palestinians grasping at straws," says Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

Indeed it "may be the best straw out there at the moment" given the dead end the Obama administration's efforts have reached, Mr. Brown says. But he adds that a long list of hurdles – from international opposition to deep divisions within the Palestinians themselves make it "unclear what if anything raising this idea now is going to get [the Palestinians]." Apparently not the state of Palestine.

The steep climb the idea faces has not stopped the Palestinians' Western-backed leadership in the West Bank, which now says it will try to take the idea of declaring an independent Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem to the UN Security Council.

The idea jumps off a plan put forward by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in August to declare a state in 2011, with the interim period used to strengthen Palestinian institutions regardless of the restarting or not of negotiations with Israel.

Palestinians have tried before

Scholars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict note that the Palestinians have twice before declared the existence of the state of Palestine – in 1948 and in 1988 – but both times to no avail.

The State Department has tried to sidestep the idea of the Palestinians simply declaring statehood, with spokesman Ian Kelly recently responding to the idea by saying the US continues to want to see a relaunch of negotiations.

Other administration Middle East experts say "unilateral measures" by either side haven't been able to advance the conflict towards resolution.

The example is given of the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which some Middle East analysts say only led to the rise to power of the extremist group Hamas and the Gaza war of December 2008.

On Tuesday, the White House specifically warned that Israel's announcement about expanded settlements in Jerusalem "could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations."

Any unilateralist action by the Palestinians would "make the Israelis nervous" and would be a major reason for Israel's opposition to the statehood idea, the Wilson Center's Brown says. The other reason is that the Palestinians proposing the idea are "talking about using the 1967 borders as a basis for statehood, and that would be a non-starter for most Israelis – certainly those on the right," he says.

US holds the key to resolution

Some experts on the conflict say in any event that it is not the Palestinians, with some action born of frustration, but the US that holds the keys to resolving the conflict.

Stephen Cohen, a longtime Mideast scholar and author of the just-published "Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East," says the US could instantly change the dynamics of the conflict and move Israel towards serious negotiations by presenting Israel with a choice.

Israel either reaches a settlement with the Palestinians, or faces the loss of its "nuclear ambiguity" in a region rife with nuclear tensions and desires.

"The Obama administration is not yet making that necessary link" in a region of critical importance to the US, Mr. Cohen says, adding it may be the only effective idea left to the US. "But if you tell [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, 'If you want to maintain your nuclear ambiguity, you have to come to an agreement with the Palestinians for creation of a Palestinian state,' I believe that's something that changes the calculus – even for him and his government," says Cohen.


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