April 14, 2011

In almost two decades of working on Arab-Israeli negotiations as a State Department adviser and negotiator, I’ve come up with more than my fair share of dumb ideas. But the notion Palestinians are cooking up, for U.N. action on Palestinian statehood this fall, takes dumb to a new level.

Yet another resolution won’t deliver Palestinians a state or even bring them closer to one. The result will be the opposite of what the Palestinians want: forcing the United States to oppose Palestinians’ efforts, energizing Congress to restrict much-needed assistance to Palestinian institution-building, and probably prompting Israel to do very real (and dumb) things on the ground.

Frustrated with the lack of movement toward statehood and lacking confidence in Israel, the United States and negotiations, Palestinians have convinced themselves that it’s time to determine their own future. In the past two years, the Palestinian Authority has done tremendous work in creating credible institutions that it believes should be validated through international support: the three R’s — rhetoric, resolutions and recognition.

What Palestinians hope to achieve from their latest efforts, however, is unclear — a campaign to recognize Palestine and lay the groundwork for admission to the United Nations, or merely to pressure Israel and the United States to get serious in negotiations?

Maybe it’s the last, because negotiations are the only possible path to statehood. That they can’t deliver now is no reason to embrace ideas that won’t work and that will leave Palestinians worse off than they already are.

No matter, the Palestinians argue. Perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring, they insist it’s time to act. The U.N. General Assembly created Israel through a partition resolution in 1947, this thinking goes; maybe it will work for us.

To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways that it won’t:

First, a paper resolution, even one with monitoring and the threat of some collective action against Israel if no movement is made toward statehood, won’t produce a state. In fact, a U.N. campaign for statehood will reflect Palestinian weakness, not resolve. The Palestinian national movement today is divided; there are no guarantees that Hamas would support a U.N. campaign. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t control Gaza, most of the West Bank or its putative capital in East Jerusalem. An empty resolution in New York will score points where it doesn’t count and reflect a lack of capacity where it does — on the ground. Hamas gets more attention from Israel through its rockets than the Palestinians have gotten from their resolutions.

Second, actions produce reactions. No matter how artful and skillful the U.N. campaign is, the United States will almost certainly oppose it. Washington will veto the resolution in the Security Council. While it can’t block resolutions in the General Assembly, the United States won’t concede either the principle of declaring statehood outside of negotiations or marshaling international pressure against Israel.

The timing makes the Palestinian idea even more anomalous. To say that the Obama administration won’t risk spending political capital on an international campaign to isolate Israel in the U.N. General Assembly the year before a presidential election is probably the understatement of the century. And if the campaign pressuring Israel gets serious, Congress will be only too ready to restrict critical aid to the Palestinians and perhaps to Egypt as well if it helps lead the effort.

Third, there’s Israel, which is worried about isolation and de-legitimatization and very concerned about the Palestinian campaign. Time and again, however, the Israelis have shown that they will defy rather than submit to international pressure. Anti-Israeli resolutions at the United Nations will give Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a perfect issue to rally support and to claim (yet again) that Israel has no partner with which to make peace. The Palestinian campaign will also prompt intensified Israeli settlement activity in an effort to remind Palestinians that Israeli actions are real, not virtual. Should the Palestinians declare statehood, Israel will probably act to demarcate what part of the West Bank it intends to keep.

Twelve years ago, during the Clinton administration, we faced another Palestinian campaign for a unilateral declaration of statehood. Ehud Barak’s election and Palestinian common sense averted it; instead, Israelis and Palestinians reached another interim agreement at Sharm al-Sheikh in September 1999.

Today, though, we won’t be nearly as lucky. Averting a train wreck on Palestinian statehood in New York this fall will require a serious Israeli approach to negotiations, a display of guts and strategy from the Obama administration, and a Palestinian national movement ready to make tough choices. If none of this materializes, we’ll have a leadership vacuum. And sadly, what’s likely to fill it are paper resolutions, rhetoric, more violence and empty promises.

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for the State Department, is at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of the forthcoming book “Can America Have Another Great President?”