A "Win-Win" for Palestine and Israel Is Possible

An already-hot summer in the Middle East -- war in Libya, regime crackdown in Syria and domestic political protests from Cairo to Tel Aviv -- threatens to boil over in September when the United Nations General Assembly considers the membership application of the State of Palestine. It is a foregone conclusion that the U.S. will exercise a veto in the Security Council if Palestine applies for full member status; this would leave Palestine the option of achieving the status of a non-member state. In either scenario, the moribund peace process will absorb another body blow and attitudes on all sides will harden. However, this does not have to be. If cooler heads can prevail, then diplomacy and creative thinking could result in a third option -- one that is win-win for all sides.

There is a way for the Palestinians to achieve the diplomatic boost they are seeking with UN membership while not damaging peace negotiations or undermining relations with Israel and the United States. There are least three elements worth examining -- separately or together -- that could turn what some are calling a "train wreck" into a successful outcome for all concerned.

First, the way the UN resolution is crafted could go far in assuaging U.S. and Israeli concerns and promoting both Israeli and Palestinian interests. For example, an important Israeli interest is Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. In fact, UN Resolution 181, which is the foundation of Israel's independence, refers throughout its text to the creation of an "Arab state" and a "Jewish state" in the area of the then-Palestine Mandate. Thus, an artfully worded UN resolution presented in September could meet Israel's strongly-felt need for recognition as a Jewish state by stipulating that acceptance of Palestine as a UN member derives from the same UN Resolution 181 that specifies Israel's membership as the "Jewish state."

Second, the agenda of upcoming General Assembly sessions are littered with dozens of resolutions critical of Israel. They are devoid of any sense of balance, and each year they are offered and voted on mindlessly, accomplishing nothing. If the world is being asked to take seriously Palestine's desire to join the United Nations, then Palestine should be asked to withdraw these resolutions and stop the empty gamesmanship. Not only would this restore some sense of sanity in the UN agenda, but it would also restore some integrity to the way in that the UN addresses problems in the Middle East.

Third, a recent op-ed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas left the impression that one of the benefits of full Palestine membership in the UN would be the ability of Palestine to take its case to international legal forums, such as the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court. We already had a taste of this when the issue of Israel's security barrier was taken to the ICJ. For Israelis and many others, a Palestinian campaign against various Israeli policies in these international legal forums is simply a ruse to delegitimize the Israeli state. Palestinians deny this, but the denials have not calmed Israel's nerves. Thus, in the context of Palestine's accession as a full member of the UN, the Palestinians should be asked to commit to negotiations and to refrain from transferring a political dispute to the international legal realm.

As important as it is to consider these creative trade-offs, it is also critical to focus on the precise wording of the resolution on Palestinian accession to the UN. If the resolution specifies details -- such as the location of the borders of the state of Palestine -- then it will undermine the very logic of the negotiating process. If, however, the United States, the Quartet, and -- especially -- Israel participate in negotiating the text of the resolution, drawing on the ideas noted above or other creative solutions, it might just be possible to develop a package that accomplishes three positive purposes: a resolution that delivers the diplomatic benefit sought by Palestinians, an outcome that provides some measure of political gain for Israel, and a Security Council text that does not foreclose final status issues by unilaterally determining their outcomes. Diplomacy should be accelerated, not abandoned, at this critical juncture.

Daniel Kurtzer is a Lecturer in Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and the S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University. From 2001-2005 he served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and from 1997-2001 as the United States Ambassador to Egypt.