Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process — the one that is supposed to end with a two-state solution — is on life support. Both sides in the conflict have made their share of missteps, but Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, all but pulled the plug earlier this month by pledging during his reelection campaign that Palestine would never become a state on his watch. He reaffirmed the sentiment even as he dialed back the rhetoric after the vote. This position runs directly counter to U.S. national security goals.
A two-state solution has been an American policy for nearly two decades. In a 2002 speech, George W. Bush became the first president to explicitly call for the creation of an economically sustainable, demilitarized Palestinian state. “The establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue,” he said in 2008. “The Palestinian people deserve it. And it will enhance the stability of the region. And it will contribute to the security of the people of Israel.” Today, virtually all American politicians, on both sides of the aisle, publicly support this outcome. But with Netanyahu standing in its way, how can the United States advance this goal?
By recognizing the state of Palestine.
This is not about punishing Israel; it’s about protecting U.S. national security. Recognizing Palestine would, by helping the two-state cause, address a key source of resentment toward the United States, making it easier for American policymakers to pursue other priorities in the Middle East, such as preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, defeating the Islamic State and strengthening regional security partnerships. It would ease dealings with governments in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which often agree with Israel’s regional strategy but revile its treatment of Palestinians. It would signal to the Israelis — and their neighbors — that the United States will act in its own interests, even when those interests conflict with a close ally’s views. And it would strengthen the Jewish homeland’s security (a long-standing U.S. national interest), as many in Israel’s security establishment understand.
Recognizing Palestine would also address a persistent foreign policy problem: the divide between America’s official policy of support for Palestinian statehood and its continued support for an Israeli government that deliberately impedes that goal.
Netanyahu, while paying lip service to the two-state solution, has relentlessly worked to undermine it during his three terms as prime minister — and not just by expanding settlements, violently suppressing unarmed protests and exacerbating the divisions between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He has offered no hope to the Palestinians. No wonder Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began asking other countries, and the United Nations, to recognize Palestine after a previous round of talks collapsed in 2010. Now that Netanyahu has admitted publicly what many already believed — that he’ll never play midwife to Palestine — it’s clear that if Washington wants to achieve this goal, it must seek another route.
The only way to end this conflict, presidents from both parties have argued for decades, is through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s why U.S. officials have opposed unilateral measures, such as Palestinian-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli settlements or efforts to join international organizations. But the path of direct talks is closed off, at least while Netanyahu remains in power: Palestinians are not going to sit down with an Israeli prime minister who campaigns on a rejection of their foundational demand. As one American official told us last fall, “There is not a Palestinian alive who believes that there is any hope for political negotiation with Netanyahu.” At a news conference Tuesday, President Obama said much the same: “What we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. . . . For the sake of our own credibility, I think we have to be able to be honest about that.”
Given this reality, it is pointless for the United States to initiate yet another round of talks that will accomplish nothing. But the Israelis and the Palestinians will eventually have to return to direct talks to negotiate issues such as national borders, dividing Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the future of Israeli settlements and joint security arrangements. Recognizing Palestine now would lay the groundwork for those future negotiations. It would be an object lesson for Israelis about the costs of continued recalcitrance, and it would ensure that the United States plays a more effective role as a broker in talks by diminishing the dramatic power asymmetry that has bedeviled the peace process.
In some ways, recognition of Palestine would look awfully like an American seal of approval for Abbas and his actions. This is problematic, because he, too, has at times been a obstinate partner in the peace process. According to U.S. officials, he “shut down” when Obama presented him with a framework for future negotiations in the Oval Office in March 2014. He has dragged his feet on a deal in which Palestinian Authority security forces would take control of Gaza’s crossing points, a prerequisite for desperately needed relief and reconstruction in the territory. And in the 11th year of a four-year presidential term, he has not taken any serious steps to prepare Palestinians for national elections — even though this was an ostensible goal of his party’s reconciliation agreement last year with Hamas, the extremist group that rules Gaza.
Elections are particularly important because Abbas is a weak and embattled president. Any enduring agreement with Israel will require a Palestinian leader who is credible and legitimate. Recognizing Palestine would signal to its electorate that diplomacy (which Abbas favors) clearly works better than violence (which Hamas favors), serving as a powerful campaign argument for moderate Palestinian politicians.
Until then, in exchange for this diplomatic victory, the United States should require the Palestinian leadership to deal with a number of issues — the transfer of security authority in the Gaza Strip, an end to the crackdown on civil society in the West Bank, preparations for elections — while also making clear that international pressure on Israel cannot replace the hard bargaining and painful compromises that negotiations toward a final settlement require.
None of this would affect America’s commitment to Israeli security. Washington should continue to ensure Israel’s military edge and deepen U.S. coordination with the country’s security establishment. The Hamas government in Gaza is a daily reminder that peace is a risky venture for Israelis. They must be secure in the knowledge that the United States has their back. The United States should also press Arab states to edge toward more open discussions with Israel, reiterating the promise of full normalization contained in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This would reinforce to Israel the massive upside of a two-state solution.
In the end, recognizing Palestine would be both good for U.S. national security and consistent with basic American foreign policy values: support for self-determination and independence. Indeed, it was precisely these values that informed the U.S. decision to recognize Israel as an independent state in 1948. The past few years have seen millions of Arab citizens demonstrating, and sometimes giving their lives, for their rights and freedoms. We should join the 130 countries that already recognize Palestine, signaling that we share and support those goals for everyone, everywhere.