Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) negotiator Saeb Erekat threatened over the weekend that the Palestinians would work for international support to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries (the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital).
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes that the move could be "very embarrassing diplomatically for Israel." Specifically, the Palestinians claim that the move could generate additional international pressure to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements.
The move, however, could also backfire horribly for the Palestinians.
For one, a unilateral declaration would effectively nullify the existing international agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis. These agreements are the only reason Israel currently allows the Palestinians to administer the Gaza Strip and significant portions of the West Bank.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted yesterday, "unilateral [Palestinian] steps will lead to unilateral Israeli moves." In other words, a Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood could easily draw the more powerful Israel into a conflict that unilaterally places hostile Palestinian territories back under Israeli control.
A unilateral declaration could also hurt the Palestinians in other ways. It would put an end to the Palestinians' unrealistic claims on Jerusalem, or their insistence that Israel needs to accommodate thousands of Palestinians claiming refugee status.
Specifically, if the Palestinians declare a state outside of the scope of negotiations, the Israelis will officially reject these demands, and the Palestinians will get nothing. When the Palestinian leadership fails to deliver on these issues – which they have insisted are sacrosanct for decades – their legitimacy will be drastically diminished.
And on the topic of leadership, who do the Palestinians believe can run their state? Currently, the Gaza Strip is under control of the jihadist Hamas organization. This has been the case since the terror group launched a brutal military coup in June 2007. Meanwhile, the West Bank is under the control of the rival Fatah faction, which effectively controls the Palestinian Authority. The two groups have repeatedly failed to reconcile at summits sponsored by Arab states over the past two years. It is doubtful that the declaration of Palestinian statehood would help the two sides come together.
It is also important to note that there are Israeli-built barriers around the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that these two territories are separated by an expanse of the Israeli Negev Desert. If the Palestinians declare a state, the Israelis will not remove these barriers. Indeed, these security measures have stopped all but one suicide bombing in Israeli territory in recent years, and have actually helped minimize conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. Thus, if the Palestinians declare a state without Israeli buy-in, their state would remain divided in two, with virtually no chance of getting the Israelis to connect them.
At this point, it should become clear that the Palestinians would hurt their national aspirations by failing to work with the Israelis. This, of course, raises the question: Why would they even consider a unilateral declaration?
For this, we can thank the misguided policies of U.S. President Barack Obama. Early on, the President called for an end to Israeli settlements as a unilateral concession, outside the scope of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The President, in recent months, realized that this position was untenable, and has since toned down these calls.
The damage, however, has been done. The Palestinians now believe that they have a strong ally in the U.S. President. More importantly, they believe they can demand unilateral concessions, or even make unilateral decisions.
The Palestinians would learn a very difficult lesson if they declared statehood. Obama, too, would learn a tough lesson. His early statements have already exacerbated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, in the process, undermined Middle East security.