By Lee Hiromoto —
Contrary to the pessimism of some, the Arab-Israeli peace process has come quite far since Israel won its independence in 1948. In 1967, the Arab League declared in the Khartoum Resolution that there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it.” The Palestinian National Charter of 1968 set out to “destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence” and declared that Israel’s establishment was “entirely illegal, regardless of the passage of time.”
Yet by 1993, Yasser Arafat, in a letter to Yitzhak Rabin, clearly stated that the Palestine Liberation Organization “recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” In 2002, the same Arab league that emphatically enunciated the three no’s in 1967 embraced a peace plan that would provide for “normal relations with Israel.”
This progress, while neither perfect nor uniformly linear, has brought tangible good to the Palestinian people. The process initiated by Arafat and Rabin led to the creation of autonomous areas in the West Bank where Palestinians were—for the first time in modern recollection—allowed to govern themselves under the aegis of an internationally recognized proto-sovereignty.
Once unthinkable, Israeli and Palestinian security forces now cooperate to fight terror in the West Bank. Formerly ubiquitous military checkpoints have been removed, and the Palestinian economy has enjoyed a boom in recent years. From a new movie theatre in Nablus (the first to open in a Palestinian city this millennium) to a five-star hotel in Ramallah, the tangible gains brought by Arab-Israeli engagement speak to the power of dialogue.
But the sudden and unilateral imposition of a Palestinian state onto Israel by the U.N. (as sought by President Abbas) could end up destabilizing the region and undoing the substantial gains made thus far in the process of Arab-Israeli reconciliation. The danger presents itself on two levels: the possibility of Islamist terror originating from a Palestinian state and the increased risk of regional conflict between Israel and its neighbors.
The Danger Of A Failed Palestinian Terror State
First, a hasty Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (Gaza, the other major Palestinian population center, has been devoid of an Israeli presence since 2005) under international pressure would embolden the extremist elements that have been kept in check by Israeli security forces. At the moment, the Israeli presence keeps the peace to the benefit of both Palestinian and Israeli communities in the region by arresting West Bank terrorists and stopping the trafficking of illegal weapons.
History shows that the sudden withdrawal of this stabilizing force can have deadly consequences.
Unilateral Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the Gaza Strip in 2005—infused with the hope of peace—led only to further conflict. Indeed, Israel was forced to take military action on both fronts not long after those optimistic pullouts. Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War was provoked by the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbullah, which kidnapped two Israeli soldiers from the country’s northern border with Lebanon. In Gaza, Hamas violently seized power in a 2007 coup and sanctioned a bombardment of thousands of rockets and mortar shells that led Israel to carry out a crushing air and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009. Both Hamas (in Gaza) and Hizbullah (in Lebanon) receive Iranian sponsorship.
Palestine And The Danger Of Regional Escalation
Second, the hurried creation of a Palestinian state in a time of regional upheaval raises the stakes in any future conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by increasing the likelihood that other Arab actors, currently facing unprecedented popular pressure, will take advantage of Palestinian independence to justify direct intervention against Israel.
Such a conflict could start if a vulnerable Israel, now bereft of the West Bank and only ten miles across at its narrowest point, decides to take defensive military action against, say, the development and import of West Bank projectile weapons. Or the Palestinians could employ a pretextual justification, such as a sluggish or insufficient (as they see it) evacuation of Israeli settlement communities from a newly-sovereign Palestine, as an excuse for military action against Israel. In fact, a rushed U.N. decision to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state without coordinating an Israeli withdrawal would put Israel, which has over 200,000 citizens living in the West Bank, in violation of Palestinian borders and give the Palestinians casus belli—a reason to go to war against Israel.
While itself undesirable, an intensified Israel-Palestine conflict threatens to embroil the entire region. Regardless of how a clash between Israel and a Palestinian state begins, other Arab countries could invoke the Arab League’s joint defense pact and “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations,” recognized in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, to justify joining military action against Israel. Since the Palestine is not currently a U.N. member state, the collective self-defense provision of Article 51 does not apply to them. But it would to a U.N.-recognized Palestine.
Thus, under a colorable reading international law, the creation of a Palestinian state would empower anxious Arab leaders to attack Israel in defense of Palestine, thus appeasing the newly-empowered democratic masses that have driven the Arab Spring. Since this action will have a plausible legitimacy under international law, there is less risk of global pushback like that which helped take down Gaddafi in Libya.
First among these dangerous potential actors is Egypt, whose military has been well-stocked by American military aid. The largest Arab state is currently ruled by a junta willing to use force in its eagerness (somewhat ironically) to avoid a popular uprising like that which swept out longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak and brought them to power. Despite the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, recent events like the mob attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and the new Egyptian government’s failure to secure oil pipelines from the Sinai Peninsula to Israel indicate a strong anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt. For a young and insecure Egyptian regime, intervention on behalf of the Palestinians against Israel would be tempting way to placate the masses.
For Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, a member of a minority Muslim sect who has confronted bloody uprisings this year, a glorious campaign to retake the Golan Heights would be a national unifier that might stave off the predicted end to his regime. Jordan, which shares a long border with Israel and has a large ethnically Palestinian population, is also facing reformist pressure that recently led King Abdullah II to fire the kingdom’s most recent prime minister. Additionally, terrorist groups like Hizbullah (on Israel’s northern border next to Syria) and those in Gaza (directly on Israel’s southern front) have thousands of Katyusha and Qassam rockets at their disposal and a need to periodically renew their street credibility via attacks on Israel.
Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states have come far on the rocky path to peace, to the point where even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (credited by some for derailing prior efforts to create a Palestinian state) now supports the establishment of a Palestinian state. Instead of tempting conflict during a time of regional upheaval—especially dangerous given the nuclear weapons Israel is widely believed to possess—all parties should return to the direct negotiations advocated by Israel’s government and President Obama that are the safest and most effective path to the realization of Palestinian national aspirations. In a tense region awash in change, the international community must move cautiously to avoid further igniting the flames of conflict and violence in the Middle East.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press.