In his May 19, 2011 speech on the Middle East, President Obama made an oblique reference to the Palestinian plan to seek full membership in the United Nations. He said that this would be a “symbolic action” and that it “won’t create an independent state.” Both claims are undeniable, but neither warrants dismissing or opposing the plan. Indeed, symbolism is a good reason for supporting it. The Obama administration has made it clear that it would like to avoid “a showdown” at the UN in September. Failing that, the United States would probably veto the Palestinian application at the Security Council, and would most likely try to dilute the wording of any General Assembly resolution. If that happens, an opportunity for furthering Israeli-Palestinian peace would be missed.
In the May 19 speech, the president affirmed his commitment to a two-state vision with borders “based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps.” This vision faces two serious challenges among Palestinians today. First, it looks unrealizable in the short term. Second, it looks far less attractive than it did two decades ago. The admission of Palestine to full UN membership would go a long way toward addressing both of these challenges. It would make clear that the two-state vision is a realistic political option in the eyes of the international community, and it would help restore the two-state solution’s association with justice and Palestinian dignity.
According to a March 2011 poll, two-thirds of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza think that “the chances for the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel in the next five years are either slim or non-existent.” In light of the utter failure of twenty years of negotiations to bring such a state into being, this is a rational assessment. The increase in settlements, bypass roads, checkpoints, and the building of the barrier have altered conditions on the ground in a direction that makes it difficult (although not impossible) to foresee the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines. The causes of these conditions need not be rehearsed. Suffice it to say that both Palestinians and Israelis have contributed to them and have helped make the two-state vision look increasingly like a pipe dream.
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The two-state vision’s short-term feasibility used to distinguish it clearly from the rival “one-state” and “bi-national state” visions. But a March 2010 poll showed an erosion in this belief: 42 percent of Palestinian respondents still thought that the one-state vision is the most difficult option to realize, while fully 32 percent thought that the two-state vision was more difficult. If the belief persists among large segments of the Palestinian public that the two-state vision is not realizable in the short term, support for it, which stands now near 55 percent, will undoubtedly further erode. The two-state solution envisages a Palestinian state on only 22 percent of historic Palestine; this could still be attractive if it were a realistic political aspiration, but as a dream it is not very satisfying. As the possibility of two-states recedes, it will undoubtedly be replaced by more appealing dreams, rendering the conflict unsolvable for the foreseeable future.
Whatever the polls, the two-state vision remains the only feasible one in a world that resembles our own—where national sentiment is real, the territorial state is the dominant political form, and where for better or worse national groups (with few exceptions) aspire to statehood. Alternative proposals, including creative ones like the “parallel states” proposal, expect Israelis and Palestinians to transcend the current political world.
If in the absence of territorial Palestinian control and sovereignty, a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders were to become a reality in international law, the two-state vision would be taken out of the realm of dreams and turned into an already-begun project in need of completion. In this way, full UN membership for Palestine would help address the first challenge that the two-state vision faces among Palestinians today. Its ameliorative effect on the second challenge, however, would be even more far reaching. It could help restore to the two-state vision the meaning that originally made it a viable option for Palestinians.
The two-state vision can mean two different things to Palestinians. In one sense, it represents a formula for accommodating overwhelming Israeli power and for legitimating the terms of Palestinian dispossession in 1948. In this sense, the two-state vision is a formula for Palestinian surrender, and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would be an act of Israeli magnanimity for which Palestinians, as the weaker party, would need to be grateful. This is hard for Palestinians to swallow. But in the second sense, the two-state solution could represent the verdict of a global moral consensus. In this sense, it would amount to the realization of a Palestinian right and the partial righting of a wrong. If Palestinians succeed in securing this right by asserting and demanding it, then its realization becomes associated not only with justice (albeit imperfect) but with their own pride and dignity. This would render the two-state vision not only palatable to Palestinians but also inspiring and worth pursuing wholeheartedly. The difference between the above two meanings cannot be overemphasized, despite the fact that on the ground there is no necessary difference between them.
Twenty-three years ago a number of factors converged to render the second meaning of the two-state vision available to Palestinians, and helped garner widespread support for it. Through the 1960s and 1970s, it became clear that neither Palestinians nor their allies would regain any part of historic Palestine by force. This recognition was necessary in preparing the groundwork for a Palestinian embrace of the two-state vision, both among leadership and the public. But by itself this recognition did not suffice. Two additional factors had to converge to allow the two-state vision to take hold in the political imagination of large numbers of Palestinians: it needed to become associated with international law and justice, and with Palestinian pride and dignity.
Palestinians made the two-state vision their national political program during the first intifada, which started in late 1987. That was a moment of strength and moral authority for Palestinians, when much of the world looked at them with great admiration. The two-state vision was not at that time offered to them by anyone. Nor was it forced on them by their leadership, which had flirted with the idea for more than a decade but had not yet adopted it. With political mobilization came a sense of power, and the Palestinian people demanded the two-state vision for themselves. Their demand reflected an international consensus that had emerged in the aftermath of the 1967 war, encoded in a number of UN resolutions. Thus surrounded by an aura of justice and international legality, and by a sense of pride and dignity, the two-state vision was able to inspire Palestinians in large numbers.
Haidar Abdel-Shafi, in his speech at the Madrid peace conference on October 31, 1991, captured this meaning of the two-state vision. Abdel-Shafi spoke of a Palestinian “act of will” that brought the delegation he headed to the negotiating table. He told the conference participants that “the people of Palestine look at you with a straightforward, direct gaze,” and referred to pride and dignity six times. He mentioned justice, right, and international law over forty times. The association of the two-state vision with these ideas and sentiments was essential then, and it remains essential today.
Yet over the last twenty years, the degree to which the two-state vision has come to appear a compromise with power has grown, while its association with justice and Palestinian dignity has been fading away. The long and still-fruitless negotiation process has had a great deal to do with this transformation. The phased structure of the peace process in the 1990s left control over its progress in the hands of Israelis, leaving Palestinians with the sense of being at their mercy. The permanent status negotiations that started in 1999 and lasted through 2010 were characterized by haggling over percentages of land for withdrawal and for land-swaps, and by the image of Palestinian negotiators—made vivid in the Palestine Papers—cajoling and trading for every inch of territory, every neighborhood of East Jerusalem, every refugee, and every settlement. Not surprisingly the two-state vision has lost its glow.
More and more, the two-state vision looks like a formula for Palestinians to accept the consequences of their weak position. The harsh criticisms to which the Palestinian leadership and its supporters were subjected by American and Israeli policy-makers, as well as many commentators, for not accepting what was “offered” them at Camp David and since have made abundantly clear which meaning of the two-state vision is in operation within these circles. The recent creative cooptation of the two-state vocabulary by rightist political leaders in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in his speech to US Congress in May spoke of Israel’s willingness to be “generous,” reinforces this sense.
Anyone who believes in the value of the two-state vision as a formula for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be concerned with its meaning to ordinary Palestinians. This concern should not replace other concerns in dealing with the conflict. The main focus must still remain on the conditions on the ground and on hammering out the details of a potential future agreement. But the symbolic meaning of the vision that is supposed to animate any future agreement is also important. And in thinking about whether to support the admission of Palestine to full UN membership, the symbolic effect on the meaning of the two-state vision to Palestinians must be taken into consideration.
According to established procedure, securing full UN membership for Palestine would require the support of the Security Council and two-thirds of the General Assembly. If the United States vetoes the application in the Security Council, Palestinians will likely go to the General Assembly directly under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution by arguing that the Security Council has failed “to discharge its responsibilities.” Although they cannot obtain full membership there, they can still seek a nonbinding General Assembly resolution recognizing Palestine as a UN member or can apply for recognition of Palestine as a non-member state.
In the unlikely event that an application by Palestine for full membership succeeds, the two-state vision would be reinvigorated as a viable and inspiring political program that the Palestinian people can stand behind with both conviction and pride. Future direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians would stand in the shadow of that meaning, and the very dynamic of such negotiations would change, for legal and symbolic reasons. The negotiations would no longer be ones in which the weak are offered what the strong see fit, but would become a mechanism for devising plans to implement an international consensus.
In the more likely event that the Security Council does not accept the Palestinian application, and the matter is taken directly to the General Assembly, the above opportunity would be missed. But some symbolic benefits could still accrue, especially if two-thirds or more of the members vote in favor of a resolution to upgrade the status of Palestinian representation. The association of the two-state vision with international law and justice would receive a boost, and the distance between that vision and the competing one-state and bi-national state visions would increase. No one can be completely indifferent to the verdict of two-thirds of the UN member states.
It is often asked why Palestinians do not hold off on their membership bid until they arrive at a negotiated agreement with Israelis. UN membership would then be theirs. Had the twenty years of negotiations borne fruit, and had these negotiations done less damage to the meaning of the two-state vision, this would have been the best scenario. Alas, this is not where we are. To dangle full membership as a prize to be bestowed later upon Palestinians as a reward for good behavior would further deplete whatever shred of dignity is left for them in the two-state vision.
The second reason that it is important for Palestine to be admitted to the UN now is that current regional conditions would enhance the symbolic value of such a move. At no other time in recent memory have the Arab peoples had such a sense of pride and empowerment as they do now. The Arab Spring has fostered such pride across borders, both in those countries that have seen the rise of popular movements as well as those countries that have not. At this moment, as at the time of the first intifada, there is a mood of popular political agency, a sense that even the weak can succeed in shaping their destiny. If Palestine were to achieve UN membership now, it would resonate as an enormous symbolic victory for Palestinians consistent with the prevailing regional mood.
Admitting Palestine to full UN membership now presents a unique opportunity to breathe life into the two-state vision, by moving it out of the realm of dreams and into the realm of legal reality, and by restoring to it its association with justice and Palestinian dignity. This opportunity may not be high on the agenda of those who have it in their power to either stop or support it. But the two-state vision, the only proposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not require a fundamental (and probably multi-generational) transformation of the two people’s sense of themselves, is fast receding from view. A move as symbolically powerful and radical as the admission of Palestine to full UN membership would increase this vision’s admittedly meager chances of being realized.
Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.