With Mahmoud Abbas’s recent speech before the P.L.O. Central Council – replete with anti-Semitic canards and reckless political posturing – the octogenarian Palestinian leader affirmed what many have long suspected – that, whether by choice or fate, he will not be the one to achieve Palestinian statehood. Abbas’s subsequent call for Muslims and Christians worldwide to “defend” Jerusalem represented a doubling down on this count.
While lacking the conspiratorial bombast of Abbas’s remarks, Likud’s internal endorsement of West Bank annexation further put the kibosh on any negotiated two-state solution in the near term, although the party’s traditional opposition to Palestinian independence renders the degree of hype surrounding this specific decision questionable.
Between baseless and insidious accusations, including that Israel was importing narcotics to the occupied territories “in order to destroy our younger generation,” Abbas asserted that Israel must recognize a Palestinian state or else the Palestine Liberation Organization would withdraw recognition of Israel. However frightening, the warning is unlikely to yield change from Israelis or Palestinians.
That demand lays bare one of the strangest anomalies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under the letters of mutual recognition leading up to the 1993 Oslo I Accord, the P.L.O. recognized Israel, which in turn recognized the P.L.O. as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. From that point on, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been between a sovereign state and a “1960s-style Third World liberation movement” (to borrow Yossi Alpher’s parlance) – not with a rival country, and not even with the quasi-state Palestinian Authority.
In the early 1990s, this uneven arrangement might have made sense. Officially, Palestinian statehood was not a given as the intended outcome of the Oslo process. Even the Israeli left had not accepted a two-state solution. While it is worth questioning what else Yitzhak Rabin could have intended in returning the P.L.O. to historic Palestine, the late Israeli prime minister explicitly did not endorse two states in public. Moreover, recognizing Palestine at the start of negotiations would probably have amounted to giving away the farm without receiving anything in return from the Israeli perspective.
Today, things are different. Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert’s offers for Palestinian independence, Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement, and even Benjamin Netanyahu’s less-than-half-hearted Bar-Ilan speech have firmly inserted the two-state solution into the Israeli mainstream.
Recognizing Palestine would still mean breaking Israeli political taboos, even for the peace camp. With center-left leaders employing euphemisms like “separation” to bolster support for two states, open talk of Palestine is hardly a recipe for electoral success in Israel.
This is to say nothing of Israel’s current government, with a national-religious wing hostile to Palestinian statehood independent of Abbas’s or any other Arab leader’s actions. If tomorrow the P.L.O. renounced incitement, acknowledged Zionism as a legitimate ideology, and sung Israel’s praises, it would be difficult to imagine Bayit Yehudi (and many Likud lawmakers) changing their tune on two states or recognizing Palestinian statehood because, broadly speaking, the national-religious settler worldview cannot reconcile the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations in any part of the biblical Land of Israel. The reverse is almost certainly true of the P.L.O.’s attitude toward recognizing Israel in historic Palestine, but the Palestinians lack the military power and effective political organization to seriously challenge the Jewish state here.
In the interim, it would be surprising if Abbas actually follows through on his threat to revoke recognition of Israel. In 2015, the Palestinian president admonished the UN General Assembly that the P.L.O. would have no choice but to exit the Oslo Accords in the face of an increasingly right-wing Israeli government. Notably, this verbal hand-wringing came during the Obama administration. While hardly anti-Israel, the Obama White House was still more sympathetically disposed to Palestinian concerns than President Trump and his team appear to be.
Absent friendly leaderships in Washington and Jerusalem, the Palestinians may hit the diplomatic warpath and return to the United Nations. Already, there are indications that the P.L.O. will return to Turtle Bay to seek full UN membership (the State of Palestine’s present status is non-member observer state). Of course, an upgrade at the UN would require the consent of the Security Council, where the United States wields a veto. Even if the U.S. did vote yes or abstain (both unlikely, particularly under the Trump Administration), under American law, Palestinian membership would precipitate a range of punishments on the United Nations. The U.S. administration would then have to choose between rupturing its donor relationship with the largest UN organs or not enforcing statutes condemning the P.L.O. to second-tier status at the international body (and face the attendant political backlash for doing so).
If there is to be a two-state solution, there will, in some distant future, be a state of Palestine with the same rights and recognition as other countries. Already, nearly 140 countries recognize Palestine, while acceptance from the United States and the United Nations remains elusive. Tacitly accepting this now may benefit Israel and the United States in the future by forcing the P.L.O. to, once and for all, geographically delineate Palestine without the territory of pre-1967 Israel. To Israel’s benefit, Palestinian membership at the UN might grant the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority a small domestic win, shoring up the Jewish state’s security subcontractor in the West Bank. However, owing to a range of ideological and domestic political considerations, such a shift will not soon be forthcoming from Israel or the U.S. Until then, the P.L.O. will continue to shout into the wind with the same old threats, slowly eroding popular Israeli confidence in the organization’s intentions and Palestinian confidence in their leaders’ ability to deliver.