It was the sort of vote that’s still hard to imagine taking place in the U.S. Congress: an overwhelming if non-binding endorsement of an independent Palestinian state by the British House of Commons.
The 274-12 vote on Monday was another indication that much of the world is losing patience with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wants a resolution that obliges Israel to cede territory to the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas.
Another signal came a day earlier in Cairo when 50 nations and international organizations pledged $5 billion to rebuild Gaza. Several donors, including Norway, said this had to be the last time they paid to reconstruct a tiny enclave that has repeatedly been pummeled by Israel as punishment for shooting rockets onto Israeli territory.
With other serious crises confronting the international community – the group that calls itself the Islamic State, Ebola, climate change – why should the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be so hard to resolve?
The PA under Abbas has put forward maps that would allow Israel to retain major settlement blocs in the West Bank. The Palestinians have also accepted that millions of refugees could return only to a Palestinian state, not ancestral homes in what is now Israel. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, Israel has refused to table its own detailed counterproposal and has instead focused on demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel not just as a sovereign entity – which Abbas and the late Yasser Arafat have done repeatedly – but as an explicitly Jewish state.
The Barack Obama administration has also declined to propose borders for the new Palestinian state in deference to Israel. That has not kept members of the Netanyahu government from vilifying Secretary of State John Kerry for his marathon efforts to mediate a two-state solution as well as to achieve a cease-fire in the latest Gaza war this summer.
After peace talks collapsed last spring over Israeli refusal to release a third tranche of Palestinian prisoners, Abbas accelerated efforts to circumvent the Netanyahu and Obama administrations by taking the Palestinian case to the United Nations and individual governments. Abbas is meeting with increasing success. Besides this week’s British vote, a new left-wing government in Sweden has indicated that it will support Palestinian independence.
At the U.N., the Palestinians introduced a resolution in the Security Council to establish an independent state alongside Israel – a goal they say they want to achieve within three years. According to Israeli journalist Ben Caspit the Palestinians may be just one vote away from a two thirds majority in the council. That would enable the Palestinians to bypass the expected U.S. veto and take the issue to the General Assembly, where a large majority of developing nations has long supported the Palestinian cause.
The Palestinians already have observer status at the U.N. and have joined 15 U.N. agencies.
Growing anti-Israeli sentiment
The Israelis can try to shrug off U.N. action but have to be worried about the trends in Europe, where anti-Israel sentiment has been growing in the aftermath of the collapse of peace talks and the latest Gaza war, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and about 60 Israelis. More and more Europeans are boycotting products made in Israeli settlements; other trade with and investment in Israel is bound to suffer.
Interviewed about the British vote, Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould said “I am concerned in the long run about the shift in public opinion in the U.K. and beyond towards Israel… Israel lost support after this summer’s conflict, and after the series of announcements on settlements. This Parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing, and will continue to blow without any progress towards peace.”
In the U.S., polls show that younger Americans feel less attachment to the Zionist cause than their parents and grandparents and sympathize with Palestinians as the underdogs. Even though Congress is not about to endorse Palestinian independence, the venerable American Israel Public Affairs Committee is having trouble pushing through the kinds of resolutions – calling for more sanctions against Iran, for example – that it easily steamrolled in the past.
The demographic trends also favor the Palestinians whose higher birthrates ensure that they will soon – if they don’t already — comprise a majority of those living on the land Israel controls between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Israel’s choice is to stay a Jewish democratic state, become a minority regime that indefinitely suppresses a growing Arab majority or accept a one-state solution where Jews would not remain in control.
Alternative that makes sense
Many Israelis argue that now is not the time for a peace agreement because of the instability roiling the region. But the Middle East has rarely been calm and Israel currently has much in common with the major Arab states – including Saudi Arabia and Egypt – which are supporting efforts by Abbas to restore PA authority to Gaza and to weaken Hamas, which has accepted a technocratic unity government.
Reaching agreement on the borders of Israel and Palestine would clarify for all sides where it is acceptable to build and provide sufficient time for Israelis to relocate from settlements that are to become part of the Palestinian state. In support of a peace agreement, Congress would generously continue to ensure that Israel retains its overwhelming security edge over all potential enemies.
Netanyahu, now in his third and likely last term as prime minister, has a chance to achieve something historic with Abbas, who is nearly 80.
The Obama administration says it is ready to resume peace negotiations if the parties agree.
Speaking in Cairo, Kerry noted that “real and significant process was made on substantive issues” during the last rounds of talks which ended in April.
“Make no mistake,” Kerry added. “What was compelling about a two-state solution a year ago is even more compelling today. Now, I know that in Israel as well as in Gaza and the West Bank, most people would quickly tell you today that as much as they want peace, they think it is a distant dream, something that’s just not possible now. The problem is, having said that, no one then offers an alternative that makes sense.”
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.