Words matter. They shape perceptions and understanding, both of past and present events and of future possibilities, and, thereby, can shape future events.
The UN General Assembly’s vote of November 29 overwhelmingly recognizing Palestine’s “state status” and President Mahmoud Abbas’ decree of January 3 absorbing the former “Palestinian Authority” into the State of Palestine have established the State of Palestine on the soil of Palestine. It has become both a legal and a practical “fact on the ground” which cannot be ignored.
The words “two-state solution” have been recited together for so long that it is widely assumed that they are inseparable and that one cannot have one without the other. Indeed, Israel and the United States argue relentlessly that a Palestinian state can only exist as the result of a negotiated “solution” acceptable to Israel. Were this the case, the occupying power, which has never shown any genuine enthusiasm for a Palestinian state and has barely feigned any pretense of interest in recent years, would enjoy an absolute and perpetual veto power over Palestinian statehood.
During Kuwait’s seven-month-long occupation by Iraq, Kuwait did not cease to exist as a state under international law and no one argued that it could exist as a state only as the result of a negotiated “solution” acceptable to Iraq. Similarly, Iraq did not cease to be a state while under American occupation. It was simply an occupied state, like Palestine today.
Furthermore, the U.S. government might usefully recall that, during the 50 years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States continued to recognize the three Baltic states which had been effectively absorbed into the Soviet Union by the end of World War II and permitted the prewar flags of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to fly at fully accredited embassies in Washington.
In fact, “two states” are separable from any “solution”. Two states now exist, even though one remains under varying degrees of occupation by the other. A “solution” which ends the 45-year-long occupation of the Palestinian state and permits Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace and security – with, ideally, a significant degree of openness, cooperation and mutual respect – does not yet exist.
The existence of two states certainly does not guarantee the achievement of such a solution. However, the near-universal recognition and acceptance that two states, “on the basis of the pre-1967 borders” and with the “State of Palestine on the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967” (to quote the UN General Assembly Resolution), do already exist should greatly facilitate – eventually if not immediately – the achievement of such a solution.
The near-universality of international acceptance that Palestine already exists as a state may be appreciated by a close examination of diplomatic recognitions and votes on November 29. Prior to that vote, the State of Palestine had already been recognized diplomatically by 131 of the 193 UN member states. During that vote, a further 28 states which had not yet accorded diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine voted to accord it state status at the United Nations. Only 34 states have not yet pronounced themselves, in either manner, in favor of Palestine’s state status.
It is instructive to take a close look at these 34 states. They are Andorra, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Cameroon, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Estonia, Fiji, Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, Israel, Kiribati, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Nauru, the Netherlands, Palau, Panama, Samoa, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, South Korea, Tonga, the United Kingdom and the United States.
With a few notable exceptions, the members of this group are most impressive for their insignificance. Only 12 of the 34 states (Israel among them) have populations over 5,000,000, while nine have populations below 120,000. By contrast, of the world’s 20 most populous states, 16 have extended diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine and two others (Japan and Mexico) voted to accord it state status.
Friends of justice, peace and the Palestinian people – and, indeed, true friends of the Israeli people – must now revise their language when speaking and writing about Palestine. The only legally, politically and diplomatically correct ways to refer to the 22% portion of historical Palestine occupied in 1967 are now “the State of Palestine”, “Palestine” and “occupied Palestine”. “Palestinian Authority”, “occupied territories” and “occupied Palestinian territories” are no longer acceptable.
If governments and international media – including, most importantly, governments and media in North America and Europe – can be convinced or shamed into using the correct terminology, the long-term impact on public perceptions and understanding should be profound and constructive.
The issue is no longer whether and how a Palestinian state will ever come into existence – or even whether it is still possible. It exists. The issue is when and how the occupation of the State of Palestine will come to an end. Describing this challenge properly is essential to understanding it, and this understanding is essential if Israelis are to turn back from the suicidal cliff toward which their metastasizing illegal settlement project has been driving them in recent years.
Israelis, Palestinians and the true friends of both must now see clearly, raise their sights and pursue a compelling vision of a society so much better than the status quo that both Israelis and Palestinians are inspired to accept in their hearts and minds that peace is both desirable and attainable, that the Holy Land can be shared, that a winner-take-all approach produces only losers, that both Israelis and Palestinians must be winners or both will continue to be losers and that there is a common destination at which both peoples would be satisfied to arrive and to live together.
John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who has served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.