American support for statehood is Palestine’s trump card

The diplomatic effort to secure bilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, especially in Latin America, or upgrades to the diplomatic status of Palestinian missions in the West is a net positive, as long as it does not undercut Palestinian relations with the United States.

Last week, Ecuador recognized Palestine in its 1967 borders, and Paraguay has said it will soon join what looks to become a virtually unanimous South American recognition of Palestine. Reports suggest that the United Kingdom is preparing to upgrade the mission of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the international representative of the Palestinian people, joining France, the United States, Portugal and Norway, which have all already done so.

The Latin American recognitions obviously embrace Palestine as, at least in theory, a fully-sovereign state with fully normalized diplomatic relations, and imply that it should be a member state of the United Nations. The Western upgrades to PLO missions have raised the status of Palestinian officials to ambassadorial or near-ambassadorial rank, thereby treating the representatives of Palestine as if they were officers of an established fully-sovereign state.

All of this seems to have taken Israel by surprise. If that’s the case, it only underscores the extent to which many Israelis are living in a state of denial about the viability of the occupation and the plausibility of preventing Palestinian statehood.

It is true enough that Israel has the military means to continue to deny Palestinians independence, and to colonize East Jerusalem and the West Bank, through force of arms. But what some Israelis appear to have failed to comprehend is the international stake in ending the occupation.

The world has not turned against Israel. There is still an overwhelming international consensus that it is a legitimate member state of the United Nations. Even in the Arab world the appetite for a long-term project aimed at the dissolution of the Israeli state has been relegated to the political fringes. While many Israelis mistakenly conflate outside reaction to the occupation with that toward their state, misrecognizing opposition to the occupation as “delegitimization” of Israel, the rest of the world sees the distinction more clearly than ever.

This point of view is most importantly being embraced in Washington, certainly by the administration of US President Barack Obama and also by many important members of Congress. There is a virtual consensus in the foreign policy establishment surrounding the government that resolving this conflict by ending the occupation is essential, not optional, for the United States. Many Israelis do not seem to have understood or truly processed the extent to which the United States now sees Palestinian statehood as essential to its own national interests and therefore “inevitable.”

Israeli Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer recently tried to warn his fellow Israelis that, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the US will also recognize a Palestinian state in the coming year, and then we will have to provide explanations as to how it happened.” This is probably an exaggeration as the United States will almost certainly continue to push for an agreement, but it recognizes the deep-seated American determination for the creation of Palestine.

But it is also essential that Palestinians realize this as well. Pursuing recognition in Latin America and mission upgrades in Europe is normal and positive diplomatic activity. Insofar as it causes Israel discomfort, that is largely beside the point. However, Palestinians need to be very careful to protect their relationship with the United States and the emerging American consensus in favor of ending the occupation and establishing a state of Palestine.

For a start, the United States has been the single biggest donor to the Palestinian Authority and increasingly used cash treasury-to-treasury transfers meaning that the authority has been able to use much of this aid at its own discretion. More importantly, Washington is the only country that under the current circumstances could conceivably broker an agreement with Israel whereby the Palestinian state is actually established. Palestinians will not be able to force their independence on Israel; they will have to somehow get the Israelis to agree to it. And for that, American support, cooperation and leadership is indispensable.

Thus far the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the Latin American recognitions, and earlier this year engaged in its own diplomatic upgrade of the Palestinian mission in Washington. But it did not like being put in the position of blocking PLO efforts to upgrade its status at United Nations agencies. Apparently the United States understands the need for Palestinians to pursue increased international recognition at the bilateral level, but isn’t ready to allow the issue to become multilateral, for fear that this might compromise, or supersede, the negotiations that Washington is overseeing.

The bottom line is that Palestinians need to be extremely careful here. Recognition from Paraguay and ambassadorial status in the UK is highly desirable, but the American consensus in favor of ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state is the only real, powerful and actionable political leverage the Palestinians have that can actually achieve the goal of independence.