Going At It Alone in the Middle East Peace Process

This week, the Palestinian delegation to the UN will request full recognition of statehood, a status long denied for the territories. And as with any diplomatic event involving Israel and Palestine, controversy abounds. American and Israeli diplomats claim that Palestinian statehood can only be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel, not through “unilateral” efforts at the UN. But Americans and Israelis are just as much to blame as the Palestinians for taking matters into their own hands rather than cooperating on key roadblocks to the peace process. Unilateral actions merely hinder diplomatic relations and undermine the chances of a peace settlement.

American-Israeli positions on Palestinian statehood may be correct, and there are legitimate arguments to be made that a UN vote is not the best path forward for the Palestinians themselves. But what I find troubling in the debate is the tendency to point fingers and ignore one’s own culpability, such as settlement building by the Israelis, and rocket attacks from Gaza-based Palestinians. The debate is routinely framed as a zero-sum game in which any positive gain by Palestine or Israel is an automatic loss for the other side. Such thinking has undermined peace negotiations for decades, and the current debate over Palestine’s unilateral move at the UN is no exception to the historical pattern.

As always, both sides conveniently find fault in the other while ignoring their own guilt. “Peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an official statement.

Former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher countered the Israeli position by reversing the argument in an interview with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The U.S. argument that this is a unilateral action by the Palestinians does not take into consideration that there are other unilateral steps being taken by Israel that are also not supposed to take place, most recognizably the settlement activity.”

The U.S. is not free of blame, either. American diplomat Ben Rhodes reiterated the Israeli position, stating that the United States has “been very clear that we don't believe that unilateral actions at the United Nations will lead to a Palestinian state.” As a historical third-party broker in Mideast peace negotiations, the U.S. will shape the outcome of the Palestinian vote by word and action. With veto power in the UN Security Council, the U.S. can unilaterally deny Palestinian statehood.

As the parties travel to the UN, all sides arrive armed with unilateral options, and of course, plenty of criticism of unilateralism, too. But major work on issues of settlements, Jerusalem, and security must be completed if everyone is to leave New York content with the state of progress. The current impasse may well serve to jumpstart the peace process as the U.S. hopes to prevent looking hypocritical in the international arena. Rather than pursuing unilateral action, all sides must agree to sit down at the bargaining table for serious discussions on major. For example, both sides are much closer to an agreement to the specifics of future borders than most people realize. Hashing out some of those details would be a landmark success.

But as events heat up at the UN this week, don’t be surprised if someone unilaterally walks away. Or if they all do. Fingers pointed, of course.

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