What is a state? In diplomatic circles, it is a deceptively simple question – at what point and under what circumstances does an area become its own country? In the modern world, it is a question without a simple answer, yet it is one that the global community will likely have to grapple with in the coming few months over several places, most notably Palestine.
Let me preface the rest of this column by saying that I am neither Jewish nor Muslim; while my genealogical heritage is a typically American blend of a half dozen ethnicities, none of them trace back to the Middle East – all this is to say that I have no ideological dog in the Israel/Palestine fight, an important consideration since emotion tends to trump logic when talking about this portion of the world. All that said, it seems fairly obvious that the most recent round of peace talks between the two sides is destined for failure. Doing a proper postmortem on the peace process would take up this entire column along with several others, let it suffice to say that in the early stages of the negotiations (immediately following the Oslo Accords and through the 1990s) the Palestinians bear a fair amount of the blame for the failure of the process; the old joke was that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It was fairly reliable that whenever there appeared to be real progress in implementing the Oslo Accords some group of Palestinian militants would launch an attack on Israel and bring things to a grinding halt, Palestinian leadership, under the late Yassir Arafat, never seemed to have the will to bring their own militants to heel.
In recent years though it has been the Israeli side that has been reliably derailing the peace process, the culprit has always been (and continues to be) Israel's insistence on maintaining and expanding the “Settlements” - Jewish-only enclaves peppered throughout what would be the Palestinian state. The Settlements are not merely housing projects, but an entire infrastructure of security zones and private roads that by many accounts (including this recent piece in the Financial Times) currently render roughly half the West Bank a no-go zone for the Palestinians who are suppose to build a state upon that land. In that respect, the Settlements are serving their designed purpose. One of the Settlements chief backers, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that the Settlements were meant to carve up the West Bank to the point where it would be impossible for the Palestinians to form any kind of coherent state upon the land. It would seem as though we're nearing the “mission accomplished” stage of that plan. Israeli officials, understandibly yet also unbelievably, insist that the Settlements are a non-issue; a point tacitly endorsed by the supposed honest broker in the peace talks, the United States. For their part, the Palestinians are having none of it, asking how could they be expected to run a country when they are not allowed on more than half of its territory? It is a situation that will only get worse, they say, as Israel refuses to renew a ten-month moratorium on Settlement construction, paving the way for the confiscation of more Palestinian land. All of this has pushed the Palestinians to the brink of taking a bold step – unilaterally declaring their independence and asking the world to recognize Palestine as a nation.
It is a move that will spark an international crisis, and one that the whole Oslo Accords and the idea of a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine was meant to avoid. Immediately the nation of Palestine would be confronted with the problem of 500,000 Israeli citizens living within their borders - more than 300,000 of whom moved to the West Bank since the signing of the Oslo Accords; not to mention the whole question of what the borders of Palestine will even be, along with questions about access to the acquifer that lies under the West Bank (that is currently a main source of water for Israel and which supplies almost all the water for the Settlements), and a natural gas field lying off the coast of the Gaza Strip – not to mention the whole status of the Gaza Strip in the first place, since Gaza's rulers, Hamas, have not been represented at any of the Israel/Palestine peace talks.
Past Israel, the country most flipped into crisis mode over a Palestinian declaration will be the United States. Historically, the United States has played the role of Israel's main benefactor; if past is prologue, in theory the US would simply not recognize Palestine's declaration. But recent US foreign policy will make that difficult. Here, of course, I'm referring to the United States' recognition (and outright support) of the independence of Kosovo. The situations are strikingly similar: through much of the 2000s, there had been a United Nations-led series of negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia over the eventual status of Kosovo (around the turn of the last century, Serbia launched a brutal campaign to defeat the Kosovo Liberation Army, the United States, fearing a repeat of the 1990s Bosnian conflict spurred NATO into launching an 88-day bombing campaign against Serbia, which eventually ended the conflict). By 2007 though the Kosovar side claimed that the Serbs were not negotiating in good faith, further talks were useless, that the process was a failure and that they were unilaterally declaring their independence from Serbia. This argument was immediately accepted by the United States, Great Britain and France, all of whom quickly recognized Kosovo's independent status over strenuous objections from Serbia and their main patron, Russia. The argument in favor of Kosovo was only through independence could the Kosovars be truly safe from Serbian aggression, if that meant taking a chunk of Serbia with them, then so be it – of course by 2007 this was a pretty specious argument; Slobodan Milosovic, the Serb leader and architect of the Kosovo campaign was on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity, the current Serbian leadership was looking for integration with Europe, not to launch a new war within its borders.
It would seem then that Kosovo provides an excellent model for the current situation in Palestine – failed peace talks with the dominant side arguably not negotiating in good faith. But since 2007, the US has taken pains to insist that Kosovo isn't a precident for anything, refusing to apply the Kosovo model to another similar situation, Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the common denominator here seems to be that Israel and Georgia are allies of the United States where Serbia was not). But Kosovo begs another question that will likely be applicable to the Palestinian situation as well: when does a “state” become a state. Or in a variation of the old philosophical question “if a tree falls in the woods...”, if a place declares its independence and no one recognizes it, is it really a state? Or is North Cyprus, recognized by only Turkey, a state? Is Abkhazia, recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru, a country? What of Kosovo, still recognized by less than half the UN members?
If Palestine takes this step they will surely be recognized as an independent nation by countries like Iran and Syria, perhaps by the entire Arab League as well. The United States, again ignoring the Kosovo precident, will surely not recognize them, just as the US will likely block any Palestinian requests for United Nations support for their fledgling state. Where the situation goes from there is open for speculation – whether Israel decides to use force to remove the upstart Palestinan government, whether other Arab governments attempt to build ties with the new Palestinian state (possibly coming into conflict with Israel in the process), whether Israel continues to maintain their naval blockade of Gaza, which under international law would then be considered an act of war against a sovereign state (assuming Gaza is included in the declaration). And of course there's the question of what happens to the half-million Israel “settlers” now living in a foreign land.
But Palestine isn't the only potential new state out there. In my next column I'll take a look at a couple of aspiring states in Africa, including South Sudan and Somaliland.Israel, Jewish Settlements, Palestine, Peace, United Nations, US Foreign Policy