When the Palestinians declare, which road will Israel choose?

The country may be riveted by the social protests, but the September deadline is still approaching. When the Palestinians declare statehood and take their request to the UN, there are two things Israel could do, regardless of the (largely predictable) UN outcome. Israel could reject the Palestinian declaration – including by ignoring it – or recognize it. The latter is unlikely to impossible.

What is likely to happen then? Here are a few possible scenarios for Israel’s response:

If Israel officially rejects Palestinian independence, it could then either escalate the physical violence (see the trigger-fast response against unproven sources of the barrage of rockets in the south that killed an Israeli civilian and wounded many others), or not escalate (consider Israel’s response to three terror attacks this spring. Despite the murder of a whole family in the settlement Itamar, and a bus bomb in Jerusalem, there was little real flare-up; after a rocket attack on a school bus in the south, Israel’s  retaliation was lethal but de-escalated without reaching full-scale war).

Either option is likely. But after the disastrous Gaza war soured Israel’s relations with the international community, generated deep domestic rifts that have not yet healed, and failed to stop the rocket fire from Gaza (which is now apparent), Israel might think twice about full escalation. Any war against the Palestinians at present, state or no state, is likely to result in a similar ratio of civilian/military casualties.

In other regions, unilateral declarations of independence have often led to war. In the former Soviet Union, sovereign states (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova) went to war to prevent South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transniestria, respectively, from achieving self-declared independence in the early 1990s. Many thousands were killed, hundreds of thousands of refugees were created. Yet in no instance did the sovereign state manage to re-integrate the region into their territory, and their status is in limbo to this day. Since Israel is not even clear that it wants to integrate the Palestinian territories (not “re-” integrate, since the West Bank was never under Israeli sovereignty), it’s not clear what full-scale war can accomplish.

There is another possibility. The drawn-out escalation following Kosovo’s first declaration of independence (1991) eventually led to a near-massacre, and by 1999 required international military intervention. By the time Kosovo declared independence again in 2008, Serbia officially rejected it, but this time avoided violent escalation. Palestine is also on its second declaration. Israel too, could decide that Palestine isn’t going away anytime soon, and that war will be counterproductive. Non-escalation is an option.

If Israel does not escalate, there are two things it could do: Reject the new state officially, undertake a de-recognition campaign like Serbia has done regarding Kosovo, and step up efforts to expand settlements and further to eat away at Palestinian control over its putative sovereign territory.

The other option is that Israel, while rejecting the new state officially, quietly concedes that the current situation is better than the murky, unknown alternatives. Israel could maintain its official rhetoric of rejection, but undertake (continue) a de facto settlement freeze outside the main blocs in the West Bank, and/or restrict new construction to natural growth and only inside the large settlements.

In this scenario, Israel is saved from giving historic concessions that would require great leadership and courage, of which it has neither at present. The Palestinians do not get the settlement blocs, but otherwise, Israel basically leaves them alone. In this scenario, Israel basically continues the status quo, which is what its leadership seems to want. Until recently, over 60% of the public wanted the status quo too, according to a survey of Jewish Israelis I conducted in November 2010. Things may be shifting, but – with apologies to Dylan – we would indeed need a weatherman and maybe a soothsayer to know which way.

In this scenario, Israel takes no action to block development, democratization and economic stabilization of Palestine. That means allowing other countries to trade and engage with the new state, despite the political sensitivities, without threatening them diplomatically or economically.

If that happens, Palestinian society might slowly stabilize, and the more it will have to lose – psychologically and materially.

If that happens, Israel and the Palestinians may gather a few years of more fruitful – if grudging and unacknowledged – relations. With small gestures, such as letting more Palestinians work inside Israel, or Palestinians helping bridge Israel’s trade relations to the Arab world, perhaps some water and environmental agreements for the benefit of both – along with both sides trying to restrain violence, there might finally be some de facto neighborliness between a recognized state and a de facto state.

With no dazzling hopes for a high-profile peace process, fewer dreams may be shattered when the inevitable – hopefully isolated – security breach occurs. Eventually the sides may be inspired to restart negotiations. With the end already in place, there would be no terrifying unknown at the end of a list of concessions – they would just give a name to existing reality.

But then, things might not go this way. If Israel, at each junction mentioned here, takes the other road, they lead fairly quickly to a one-state reality.

In that case, maybe it’s time to stop hating and learn to at least accept the one state outcome scenario; we two-staters can’t deny a developing reality. If done right, maybe one state is not the bogeyman; and we’d do well to start thinking fast about how to make it into something livable. Therefore the next post will address why I am no longer against a one-state reality.

But to reach the two-state result – which I still believe is preferable – Israel will have to choose rational thinking, long-term strategy and change from its current course at each juncture. These roads, far less traveled, could make all the difference.

(Dahlia Scheindlin / 972mag.com / 25.08.2011)

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