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12.08.10

Let the Palestinians Declare Statehood

With three nations recognizing a Palestinian state and the Israelis gobbling up more land in the Occupied Territories, it's time for Mahmoud Abbas to declare statehood—and for Obama to be tested at the U.N. with a vote.

Now that the United States has given up on its demand that Israel freeze settlement activity in exchange for the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, it is time for the Palestinians to give up peace talks altogether and instead take a page out of Israel’s playbook and unilaterally declare statehood, come what may.

That, it seems, is precisely what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to do. This week, three South American countries took the international community by surprise when they issued separate public statements recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders; i.e., the territory occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War. The countries—Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay—comprise three of the four nations in the powerful trade group Mercosur; the fourth member, Paraguay, is expected to make a similar declaration soon, along with two other major South American powers, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Ever since the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down last September, Abbas has been threatening to take his case directly to the United Nations to force a vote on statehood, much as the Israeli government did in 1948-49 following the end of the British Mandate over Palestine. It would be a bold move for an increasingly desperate Palestinian Authority because it would force the world body to act on its many statements in support of Palestinian sovereignty.

There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that should recognition of Palestinian statehood be put to a vote on the floor of the U.N., it would win the support of every member country save two: Israel and the United States. Unfortunately, these are the only two votes that matter, considering that the U.S. has veto power over all U.N. declarations and has used it consistently to protect Israel from countless resolutions critical of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, President Obama had explicitly promised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would prohibit any U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood in exchange for a 90-day extension of Israel’s settlement freeze. That deal fell through, primarily because Netanyahu’s right-wing government refused even to consider the possibly of an extension. As Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio, “It’s clear to most people there will be no more freezes.”

Yet now that Obama’s efforts at a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have proved an utter failure, Abbas is well-positioned to take matters into his own hands. Hence the statement from the Mercosur member states, which Abbas secured while negotiating a $200 million trade deal in late September. During those negotiations, Abbas requested that the four South American nations immediately recognize the Palestinian state. The Brazilians complied, saying in a statement that “all four Mercosur countries have been consistently in favor of a viable, contiguous and democratic Palestinian state.” Argentina followed suit, voicing a “deep desire to see a definitive advance in the negotiation process leading to the establishment of a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”

Not surprisingly, Israel’s Foreign Ministry criticized the statement from the South Americans, saying, “All attempts to bypass negotiations and to unilaterally determine issues in dispute will only harm the trust of the sides and their commitment to agreed upon frameworks for negotiations.” Considering that everyone now knows without a shadow of doubt that there are no such recognizable frameworks in place for negotiations, and absolutely no reason to think that the peace talks will resume any time soon, the Israeli statement must be read either as a cynical joke or as a deliberate ploy to continue pushing peace talks as far into the future as possible while gobbling up enough Palestinian land to make a contiguous state impossible. Just this week, another 625 new settlement units were approved for construction in East Jerusalem, adding to the 1,126 units that have already been constructed in the Occupied Territories since the partial freeze ended in late September.

Let’s find out if this president is ready to stand utterly alone on the world stage as the sole head of state refusing to recognize the existence of a Palestinian state.

Obviously the statements from Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay are merely symbolic. But as Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Maliki noted, their importance lies in the fact that “the more countries that recognize the Palestinian state, the more pressure this will put on countries that are hesitant.” Already, about 100 nations across the world have come out in recognition of an independent Palestinian state, including, most recently, Turkey.

Symbolism aside, if there is one thing the Palestinians have learned in four decades of fruitless peace talks, it is that the only they will ever be allowed to have a state of their own is if they simply seize it for themselves.

So then, enough talk. Enough stalling. It’s well past time to declare statehood and force a vote of recognition in the United Nations.

Obama claims the U.S. will veto any such vote. Let’s call his bluff. Let’s find out if this president is ready to stand utterly alone on the world stage as the sole head of state refusing to recognize the existence of a Palestinian state just so he can appease an ally, Israel, that over the last year has repeatedly gone of out its way to embarrass his administration and stifle his attempts at achieving a two-state solution.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East comes out in Nov. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.