Baz Ratner/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the opening of the winter session of parliament in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Palestinians consider Mideast talks trump card: declaring statehood

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu offer to extend the moratorium on settlement construction – but only if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians are mulling counteroffers.

Could the Palestinians get the attention of the Israelis – and the international community’s support – by leapfrogging negotiations and simply declaring a state?

That is one option Palestinian leaders are contemplating as they mull over how to respond to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest proposal for keeping the Obama administration’s iteration of peace talks going: Israel would agree to extend a partial moratorium on settlement construction for 60 days in exchange for the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Mr. Netanyahu’s proposal is both a response to US pressure to keep the fledgling talks going and a way of putting a high price tag on meeting the Palestinians’ demand that the settlement moratorium that expired last month be renewed. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is tied up with the so-called “right of return” to Israel of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 partition of Palestine and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But Netanyahu’s proposal also has the effect of lobbing the peace talks ball back into the Palestinian court – and preparing the way for Palestinians to be perceived as the guilty party should the talks launched Sept. 3 in Washington die an early death.

“We’re in the blame game place – we’re in a place where we’re defining who’s to blame” if the talks fail and the door continues to close on the two-state solution, says Daniel Levy, an expert in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the New America Foundation in Washington. In that context and given Netanyahu’s proposal, the Palestinians cannot afford to simply stand by and wait for others, including the US, to respond, he says.

“The question is,” Mr. Levy adds, “is there a Palestinian strategy beyond, ‘We are waiting'?”

This is where the idea of simply declaring Palestinian statehood and negotiating backwards from a fait accompli comes in. Maen Areikat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s chief representative to Washington, says it is just one of several ideas that surfaced at last week’s meeting of the Arab League in Libya.

“It has to be clear that we are not going to continue talking with the Israelis while they are continuing to build settlements,” says Mr. Areikat, who spoke Tuesday night at a dinner sponsored by the Palestinian Business Committee for peace and reform.

The State Department on Tuesday characterized Netanyahu’s call for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as the Israeli leader’s offer for keeping the peace talks going, and called on the Palestinians to respond by coming up with their own. On Wednesday Palestinian officials called on the US to produce a map that would show where Israel envisions its borders with an independent Palestine.

The Arab League decided at its weekend meeting to drop its threat to withdraw support for the talks in favor of giving the US a month to try to salvage them. But Areikat says the Palestinians and Arab leaders discussed a number of options for action in the event the five-week-old talks do not resume.

Acknowledging that the ideas raised are all “options that we have in the past contemplated,” Areikat says the proposals range from the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state to declaring an impasse and seeking binding intervention from the United Nations Security Council.

The idea of declaring a Palestinian state is indeed not new: the US already had to dissuade Yasser Arafat from going that route. But it would instantly create an international crisis: first because it would raise to the fore the status of the half-million Israelis who live on occupied Palestinian land, including more than 300,000 in the West Bank. And given the warmer support for such a move from some Security Council members than others, such a declaration would tear apart a body the US is looking to to address other international security issues, including Iran.

The Security Council has in the past approved resolutions addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including resolutions finding Israeli settlements in the occupied territories illegal and demanding they stop. In the meantime, the Israeli settlement population in the West Bank has tripled since 1993 while fully 60 percent of the West Bank has been rendered “out of use for the Palestinians,” New America’s Levy says.

Areikat says this time would “have to be a different approach” in the Security Council and any resolution would “have to include some power of enforcement,” meaning the council would be asked to invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the council to go beyond recommendations to taking action – including armed intervention to enforce international law.

Discussion of such options, including before the Arab League meeting, may explain why the US included a commitment to veto any Security Council action pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among the carrots it extended to Israel to encourage an extension of the settlement freeze.

In any case, it is hard to know if the Palestinians are serious about any of these options or if they are simply attempting to call Israel’s bluff.

The US may try to find out soon, as it gauges prospects for keeping the stalled talks going. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said Tuesday that while dates have not been set, Mideast envoy George Mitchell is expected to return to the region “in the coming days” to try to find a way forward.

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