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US President Barack Obama’s decision to use the US’ veto prerogative if the United Nations votes to recognise a Palestinian state will constitute a blow to those seeking peace in the Middle East.
His administration’s claim that peace can only be achieved through dialogue and consent rather than through unilateral moves ignores the complex power relations that constitute peace-making between Israelis and Palestinians. History teaches that peace is achieved only when the conflicting sides believe that they have too much to lose by sustaining the conflict. And, at this point in history, the price Israel is paying for continuing the occupation is extremely small.
But if, for the sake of argument, one were to accept the view expressed by President Obama – that unilateralism is a flawed political approach – then one should survey the history of unilateral moves within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and examine the US response towards them.
A logical place to begin is 1991, when Israelis and Palestinians met for the first time in Madrid to negotiate a peace agreement. United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel’s withdrawal from the land it occupied during the 1967 War in exchange for peace, served as the basis for the Madrid Conference.
Ever since that conference, Israel has carried out numerous unilateral moves that have undermined efforts to reach a peace agreement based on land for peace. These include the confiscation of Palestinian land, the construction of settlements and the transfer of Jewish citizenry to occupied territories, actions that every US administration regarded as an obstruction to the peace process.
Consider, for example, the Jewish settler population. At the end of 1991, there were 132,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and 89,800 settlers in the West Bank. Two decades later, the numbers of settlers in East Jerusalem has increased by about 40 per cent, while the settlers in the West Bank, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, have increased by over 300 per cent. Currently, there are about half a million Jewish settlers.
If Israel had arrested its unilateral transfer of Jewish citizens to Palestinian land in 1991 once it had embarked upon a peace process based on the return of occupied territory, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank would have been less than 50 per cent of what it is today.
Indeed, estimations based on the natural growth rate of the West Bank settler population suggest that this population would have been less than 150,000 people in 2011, while today it is actually over 300,000.
An analysis of settler movement to the West Bank also reveals that settler population growth has not been substantially different when left-of-centre parties have been in power. During periods in which the Labour Party formed the governing coalition, the numbers have been just as high, if not higher, than periods during which Likud or Kadima have been in power. This, in turn, underscores the fact that all Israeli governments have unilaterally populated the contested West Bank with more Jewish settlers while simultaneously carrying out negotiations based on land for peace.
Seeing that the settlers are undermining any future two-state solution, the Palestinians have decided not to wait any longer and are asking the United Nations to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. This, they intimate, is their last attempt to salvage the two-state route before abandoning it to the dustbin of history.
Their argument is straightforward: If the idea behind a two-state solution is dividing land among the two peoples, how can Israel unilaterally continue to settle the contested land while carrying out negotiations? Israeli unilateralism, in other words, has driven the Palestinians to choose the unilateral path. The only difference is that the latter’s unilateralism is aimed at advancing a peace agreement, while the former’s is aimed at destroying it.
One-sided US veto
The US has never considered using its veto power to stop Israel from carrying out unilateral moves aimed at undermining peace.
Instead, the US has frequently used its veto to prevent the condemnation of Israeli policies that breach international law. Now the Obama Administration wants to use the veto again, with the moral justification that unilateralism is misguided. But the real question is: Why is unilateralism bad when it attempts to advance a solution, yet warrants no response when unilateralism threatens to undermine a solution?
President Obama should keep in mind that the Palestinian appeal to the international community might very well be the last chance for salvaging the two-state solution.
If the Palestinian demand for recognition falls through due to a US veto, then the necessary conditions for a paradigm shift will be in place: The two-state solution will be even less feasible, and the one-state formula will emerge as the only alternative.
Yinon Cohen is Yerushalmi Professor of Israel and Jewish Studies, Department of Sociology, Columbia University, New York.
First published in Al Jazeera.