Last week, not for the first time, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said he was considering declaring a Palestinian state and asking the United Nations to recognize it. In the past, it went without saying that the United States, which holds a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, would veto any such proposal that did not come about as the result of a negotiated agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. But there is now speculation that President Barack Obama might break with that precedent.
He might do this because he believes in a "two-state solution" and would like to achieve while he's in the White House and sooner rather than later. This is not unlike Obama's approach to health-care reform. He was willing to use whatever means were necessary to get a law passed. The outcome has not been as he anticipated — the midterm elections are testimony to that. Should Obama support a Palestinian state birthed through the "unilateral option," that, too, would bring unintended consequences.
Unlike many Americans and Europeans, Abbas knows that any deal he could conceivably strike with the Israelis would be unacceptable to most members of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference — not exactly a half-a-loaf kind of crowd. To them, peace may be preferable to defeat, but it's no substitute for victory. Many define victory as Israel's destruction.
From that perspective, it makes sense for Abbas to cut Israel out of the peace process. No Israel, no concessions. No concessions, no backlash from Abbas's friends and neighbors. But a politician as savvy as Abbas must see the risks that such a strategy entails. In the great poker game of the Levant, Palestinian leaders win by playing the "stateless card." Don't all peoples have the right to self-determination? And aren't the Palestinians a people? (Never mind that the rulers of most Arab and Muslim-majority countries answer in the negative when it comes to the Jewish people.)
Once a Palestinian state is established, the stateless-Palestinian card disappears from the deck: The conflict is transformed from a fight for Palestinian independence to a border dispute. Abbas would then have to decide whether to pursue territorial claims through violence or ask the Israelis to start up new talks. The former would destroy the security and prosperity achieved on the West Bank in recent years; the latter would leave him in a weaker negotiating position than he holds right now.
But the most important stumbling block may be this: Since 2007, Abbas and his Fatah movement have been engaged in a low-intensity civil war against the Islamist Hamas organization. Hamas has jailed, tortured, and killed large numbers of Fatah members in Gaza, which it controls. Fatah has treated Hamas members almost as roughly in the West Bank, which it governs.
Is there anyone who seriously believes that the establishment of a Palestinian state at this moment would not escalate the conflict? And is there anyone who seriously believes that Abbas and Fatah would come out as winners without substantial help from Israel? Which raises the question: Will the Israelis provide such security assistance — as they do now, albeit quietly — if Abbas, against their wishes, takes the U.N. route?
On the one hand, Israelis cannot want 'Hamastans' on two of their borders. On the other hand, the Israelis might make the strategic decision to sit back and let Hamas win, knowing that the "international community," anti-Israeli though much of it is, will be uncomfortable backing a terrorist organization openly and unequivocally committed to Israel's extermination, and guided by the jihadi rulers of Iran.
With Hamas at the helm, the West Bank would soon resemble Gaza — a ward of the "donor community," its people subject to an increasingly fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. Eventually, Hamas would feel compelled to "resist" Israel's existence through missile attacks or terrorism. Israel would have little choice but to respond forcefully.
What happens then? Will Syria and Iran come to Hamas's aid? Will Hezbollah launch the thousands of missiles it has deployed while U.N. "peacekeepers" looked the other way? What role will Turkey — a NATO member that now sees itself as a leader of the "Muslim world" — choose to play?
And what will Obama do as the conflict spreads and escalates? If the president does not have a good answer to this and related questions, he should not wait much longer before making absolutely clear that he does not want Abbas to bypass negotiations and head down a road leading to a minefield.