Palestinian diplomatic outreach must not harm relations with the United States

Ben Cohen, Associate Director of Communications of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), has written a thoughtful, interesting and, I think, wrong commentary for the Huffington Post on the ongoing Palestinian campaign for international recognition in Latin America and Europe. For Cohen, there is an incompatible contrast between the achievement of what the United States has announced it now regards as the "inevitable" Palestinian state, and the international pursuit of the Palestinian cause. His argument has to be taken seriously because while there should not be any such contrast, if mishandled there could be a kind of tension between the two. But in the end, his conclusion that they are fundamentally incompatible is not, or at least should not be, correct.

Cohen is reflecting the annoyance of Israel and its supporters with what they perceive as a Palestinian end-run around negotiations with Israel by seeking recognition in Latin America and bilateral upgrades to missions in Europe. The Palestinian pursuit of upgraded bilateral relations with third parties does not contradict or bypass indispensable negotiations with Israel but certainly does not involve the Israelis directly. As much the stronger of the two parties in an extremely asymmetrical relationship involving occupation, dominance and subordination, the Israelis are used to being in the driver's seat at all times. In this case, they find themselves somewhat sidelined and unable to prevent Latin American and European states from acting in their own interests to promote the cause of ultimate Palestinian statehood and independence. The only state in which Israel has any confidence in the final analysis is the United States, because of the special relationship the Americans have with Israel and their rock-solid commitment to Israel's security. Again, this is understandable. But it's not understandable for the Israelis to expect Palestinians to rely exclusively on bilateral negotiations with Israel, brokered by the United States, as the sole and only element of their diplomacy.

Proto-Israeli diplomats in the period leading up to Israel's independence, after all, did a great deal of diplomatic outreach around the world to lay the groundwork for the recognition of their own state, led by officials of the "yishuv," the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, such as Moshe Sharett and Golda Meir. To say that such efforts annoyed the Palestinians and other Arabs at the time would have been an understatement. It's important for the Israelis and their allies like Cohen to understand that Palestinians accept that there is no path to statehood other than a negotiated agreement with Israel brokered by the United States. This is clear and obvious, and the fact that Palestinians are pursuing multiple strategies to make that happen and augment rather than undermine that process doesn't contradict it. He should take very seriously the words of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who recently told Israel's Channel Two television, "What we're looking for … is a state of Palestine, we're not looking for yet another declaration of statehood. We're not looking for a Mickey Mouse state, we are not looking for some form of self-rule, we are looking for a sovereign state of Palestine, where we Palestinians can live as free people."

Much of Cohen's argument is based on placing the full blame on the Palestinians for the parties not having yet reached an end of conflict agreement that creates a Palestinian state. But the truth is there is plenty of blame to go around, all parties have made mistakes and miscalculations and missed opportunities, and the fact remains that Israel is the occupying power and holds most of the cards. He blames Palestinians for the present impasse in negotiations, conveniently eliding Israel's refusal to accept an exceptionally generous offer from the United States for a mere 90 day extension of a temporary, partial settlement moratorium that would clearly have resulted in a new round of direct negotiations. I'm not trying to let Palestinians off the hook here, but to pretend that if Palestinians had simply cooperated in the past, they would already have had their state is to evade huge chunks of recent, and indeed more distant, history. Unlike Cohen, I'm not interested in playing the blame game.

Everyone who warns Palestinians against unilateral declarations of independence is telling them something they already know: this won't be effective and isn't the path to freedom. Cohen also complains about threats by individual Palestinian leaders to suspend security cooperation with Israel, which would obviously be a huge mistake and which won't happen, or to dissolve the PA, which is similarly not a serious option under present or foreseeable circumstances. But when Palestinians seek bilateral recognition or diplomatic upgrades from third parties, it's not surprising that, as he quotes a pro-Israel communications strategist as complaining, "It's hard to convince the outside world why what the PA is doing is wrong." Apart from the fact that it's the PLO, not the PA, which is engaging in this diplomacy, I think it's pretty obvious why its hard to convince anyone that the very concept of Palestinian diplomacy and building stronger relations with countries around the world is “wrong.” Israel engages in its own diplomacy, as do countries around the world. Palestine, the inevitable, indispensable state-in-the-making should do so as well. It's hard to convince people that there's anything wrong with that, because, in the abstract, there isn't any plausible reason why it should be. In fact, its normal.

There is an important caveat, however. Palestinian relations with the United States are, and must be, paramount. The United States is the irreplaceable broker to the indispensable negotiations that are the only practicable path to peace and independence. If the Israelis are annoyed with Palestinian diplomacy while they happily busy themselves with announcing new settlement activity on a weekly basis in violation of international law, the Roadmap and clearly stated American and international opposition, so be it. It's better if the parties don't annoy each other, but since Palestinian diplomacy, unlike settlement building, isn't by definition illegitimate, and in fact at a certain level is absolutely necessary, then a limited amount of such annoyance is perhaps unavoidable and undoubtedly tolerable.

American annoyance, the other hand, must be both avoidable and intolerable from a Palestinian point of view. In her speech at the Brookings Institution on December 10, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made crystal clear her opposition to what she described as unilateral moves at the UN by the Palestinians to upgrade their diplomatic status in such multilateral bodies at this time. From a Palestinian perspective, that should be an end to it. These moves were blocked by the United States, and further such efforts are clearly inadvisable given open American opposition. But so far the US administration has not expressed any clear disapproval of diplomatic efforts to upgrade bilateral relations with Europe and Latin America. If and when it does, the Palestinians are going to have to consider these objections very carefully and understand that the symbolic recognition of Palestine by Latin American leaders clearly isn't worth any degradation in the relationship with the United States.

Cohen says Palestinians should forget about the rest of the world and concentrate on "reaching agreement with the one state that can make Palestine a reality: Israel." That's basically sound, except it places all the onus on the Palestinians for such an agreement and none on the Israelis, which is an analysis and formula that simply cannot work. Israel too has difficult, and indeed painful, choices to make, and he doesn't acknowledge any of them. But in fact Palestinians need to concentrate also on maintaining and developing their relationship with the one state that can make such an agreement achievable: the United States. Reaching out to the rest of the world is reasonable and important, especially insofar as it helps to solidify the international understanding that Palestine is an inevitable reality and a future member state of the United Nations. But if it ever starts to come at the expense of goodwill in Washington, diminishing returns will assert themselves very quickly and the cost to the Palestinian cause and aspirations will be prohibitive. Cohen is wrong there is an inherent contradiction between Palestinian statehood and the Palestinian cause, since in fact they are one and the same. But both depend, more than anything else under both current and foreseeable conditions, on the best possible relations with the world's only superpower.