With the U.S.-led peace process looking increasingly moribund, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has begun enlisting foreign leaders in a dangerous effort to recognize a Palestinian state without Israel's agreement. Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, began this effort earlier this year to strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position, and it is bearing more fruit than even he could have expected. Abbas, however, should be careful what he wishes for. A declaration of statehood without Israeli approval could start a war in which the Palestinians themselves would pay the highest price.
Abbas has been laying the diplomatic groundwork for a unilateral declaration of statehood for months, visiting foreign capitals and lobbying governments to extend recognition. But his efforts have gained momentum this month as a U.S. proposal for an Israeli settlement freeze has fallen apart.
On Dec. 5, Abbas visited Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Afterward, the Palestinian envoy to Turkey announced that Erdogan would recognize a Palestinian state (within the 1967 borders) at an unspecified time. Erdogan also reportedly promised to go to bat for the initiative with other heads of state. The territory in question includes both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-led West Bank, with the presumption (no doubt invoking the ire of Hamas) that the West Bank leadership would be in charge.
In recent days, several other countries have made similar declarations. In response to a request from Abbas, outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared last week that his country recognized the state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders. On Dec. 6, Uruguay announced that it would do the same, and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also wrote to Abbas that her country recognizes a "free and independent" Palestine. On Dec. 8, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused a U.S. request to extend the moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements and Abbas withdrew from peace talks, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit reportedly insisted that discussions should transition to an "end game for a Palestinian settlement."
Almost 100 countries already recognize an independent Palestine, and it is unclear how many others Abbas has asked to sign on to his plan of a unilateral declaration. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has approached U.N. and European officials, demanding that they force Israel to stop imposing "facts on the ground" in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Abbas advisor Nimer Hammad openly states that the Palestinians are considering a plan whereby the United Nations would approve of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Although U.S. officials oppose a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, Barack Obama's administration has not denounced these efforts.
Although a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood is a seemingly attractive alternative to negotiations and is gaining credence among a growing group of countries, it is an almost surefire recipe for war. If the Palestinian government unilaterally claims land where an estimated 400,000 Israeli settlers currently reside in the West Bank, don't expect them simply to pull up and move, especially if they were not consulted on the matter. Expect them to fight.
From there, a border dispute with Israel becomes inevitable. And in the Middle East, border disputes are not settled through binding arbitration. Another military conflict is sure to follow. We can expect the Iran-sponsored proxies Hezbollah and Hamas to launch new rounds of rocket attacks, and perhaps even a military assault from the Palestinian territories.
The United States and European Union are clearly worried about this possibility. They have already trained some 3,000 Palestinian soldiers who have successfully maintained calm in the West Bank in recent months. That has allowed Israel to rapidly redeploy its forces out of the West Bank, where Israeli troop levels are now at their lowest levels since after the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987. Ironically, this means the new Palestinian security forces can more easily deploy to various corners of the West Bank to defend Abbas's territorial claims.
Even if it did not result in an open war with Israel, a unilateral declaration of statehood would probably not do the Palestinians any favors. The move could unify the warring Hamas and Fatah factions -- as the second intifada against Israel did briefly when the peace process unraveled in 2000 -- but it could also divide them further. In the wake of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, the two factions will almost certainly square off over who constitutes the sovereign government.
Yet with more and more countries recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, what began as a seemingly empty threat to squeeze concessions from Israel has gained traction and appears increasingly likely to become a reality. A two-state solution may be around the corner, but that doesn't mean peace will follow.