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The Urgency of Palestinian Statehood

Published in Project Syndicate, 18 April 2024

Regardless of whether the two-state solution proves to have any life left in it, conferring Palestine the extra legitimacy, leverage, and bargaining power inherent in recognized statehood would be the first step toward offering both sides a better future. The international community should make it a top priority.

MELBOURNE – It is time for Israel to recognize the force of the rapidly growing international movement to recognize Palestinian statehood, not as the final outcome of a political settlement but as a path to achieving it. Were Israel to get serious again about pursuing a two-state solution would not be to reward Hamas, but benefiting itself.

The awful reality, as the horrendous attacks of October 7, 2023 made clear, is that without a political solution that satisfies legitimate Palestinian aspirations, Israel will never be free of the specter of terrorism.

My decades of experience with conflict prevention and resolution, including years of talking to all sides in the Middle East, have drummed home the truth that despair can all too easily turn into rage, and then into indefensible outrage. By the same token, the threat of violence diminishes rapidly during those periods of genuine hope for a just and dignified settlement.

To understand the roots of October 7 is not to justify the slaughter of innocents, then or ever. Israel was undoubtedly entitled to respond with all the force that international law allows. But for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government – and those who blindly support it – to remain in denial about those roots, and to offer no political way forward, is simply to invite more of the same. This is especially true now that so many ordinary, decent Palestinians have been displaced, traumatized, and angered by the disproportionate savagery of the Israeli response.

As I have argued elsewhere, the moral, legal, and political case for recognizing Palestinian statehood has always been strong. Some 140 United Nations member states – albeit nearly all of them from the Global South – have already done so. The Gaza war has now lent the issue new relevance and urgency. More and more countries see Israel’s intransigence as not only perpetuating Palestinian misery but also guaranteeing its own.

Australia, in a pathbreaking speech by Foreign Minister Penny Wong on April 9, recently became just the latest of a host of formerly cautious countries – including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Norway, and even the United States – to make clear that it is actively considering early recognition of Palestinian statehood. True, the timing is an issue. With United Nations votes on full membership for Palestine expected at the Security Council and in the General Assembly this month, the US and some others may not yet be willing to issue formal declarations. Nonetheless, the direction of travel is clear, and momentum is building.

Many argue, nonetheless, that recognition of Palestinian statehood is an empty, quixotic gesture. Practically, a two-state solution now looks unattainable, owing to the territorial fragmentation created by Israel’s increasingly unrestrained West Bank settlement-building program. And Israeli hostility to a two-state solution, and Palestinian support for its own one-state solution, have both grown steadily and likely become more entrenched since October 7.

All true enough, but the dream of a two-state solution must be kept alive, not only because it remains overwhelmingly the preferred policy internationally, but also because it is so obviously in Israel’s own long-term interest. As many commentators over the years have pointed out, Israel potentially can be a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state occupying the whole of historical Judea and Samaria. But it cannot be all three at the same time. (This was a favorite line of my old boss, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, in offering tough love to the Jewish community here.)

The argument for recognizing Palestinian statehood is that doing so is vital to restore a balance that has tipped overwhelmingly in favor of Israel. No peace negotiation can succeed if the parties at the table are completely mismatched. For the foreseeable future, the best – and possibly the only – way to counter the current mismatch is to show that Palestine has legitimacy not only in the Islamic world and the Global South, but globally, including in traditional pillars of the Global North, like the UK, Australia, and other US allies and partners.

While it is not necessary for a state to be recognized as such to have a government in effective control of its entire territory, the issue is made more complicated by governance problems on the Palestinian side. The Palestinian Authority is a gerontocracy in desperate need of reform, and Hamas has dealt itself out of any international acceptance with its military wing’s terrorist excesses.

Constructing a viable pan-Palestinian government – preferably with the support of key regional players – will certainly be a long haul. I am among those who have long believed that the imprisoned Palestinian activist Marwan Barghouti – popular in both Gaza and the West Bank – could be the Mandela-like unifier that Palestinians desperately need. But for precisely that reason, persuading Israel to release him will be a Herculean task, at least as long as Netanyahu remains in power.

Regardless of whether the two-state solution proves to have any life left in it, conferring Palestine the extra legitimacy, leverage, and bargaining power inherent in recognized statehood would help achieve for both sides a future that is better than the awful status quo.

If it does still have life, as we must all hope, Palestinian leverage will be crucial in producing just and sustainable solutions to the big outstanding issues, including those concerning boundaries, credible security guarantees for both sides, the protection of holy sites, and the fraught question of refugee rights.

But even if the only remaining option is to negotiate a new, democratic, non-apartheid single state (in which Palestinians enjoy fully equal rights alongside Israel’s Jewish population), giving Palestinians more legitimacy and heft at the bargaining table serves the goal of securing a sustainable peace.

At a time of dramatically heightened tension with Iran, and all the renewed sense of insecurity that comes with it, it has never been more important for Israel to defuse the visceral anger of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Most of the rest of the world is now telling Israel that the best way to start is to accept the force of Palestinians’ claim to statehood. If Israelis really want a more secure future, it is time for them to listen.

Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988-96, President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-09, and Chancellor of Australian National University from 2010-19. He is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Brookings Institution Press, 2009).

This article was first published in Project Syndicate on 18 April 2024.