THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
James Carroll

Israel’s opportunity to stop a train wreck

By James Carroll
July 18, 2011

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EVER SINCE outgoing Middle East envoy George Mitchell used the phrase “train wreck’’ with Charlie Rose in May, it has become jargon for what will happen in September when the Palestinian leadership goes to the United Nations seeking “full membership for the state of Palestine.” The Netanyahu government is so gravely threatened that it has made opposition to the UN affirmation of Palestinian independence a litmus test of loyalty to Israel. A catastrophe looms.

The Obama administration has announced its intention to use its Security Council veto to derail any such resolution, and both houses of the US Congress have, with near unanimity, condemned the Palestinian approach to the UN as “unilateral” and a “circumvention of direct negotiations,” a death knell for the peace process. Yet consider another possibility: Instead of denouncing the pro-Palestinian UN resolution, Israel should announce its intention to support it.

Instead of a train wreck, a peace train. Against its critics, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat insisted last week that the UN bid “will preserve the peace process and the two-state solution.” Why not see it that way? A means of moving the two parties out of stalemate, and toward the well-understood endgame of compromise and co-existence. “Now that you are recognized as the state you are,” Israel could say, in effect, “Let’s make it real by promptly settling the outstanding issues.”

Last week, the Arab League voted to support the Palestinian application for full-member status at the United Nations. But Arabs weren’t the only ones. In Jerusalem itself on Friday, about 4,500 Israelis and Palestinians mounted a solidarity “March for Independence,” as a banner put it. Last month, 5,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv, calling for the creation of an independent Palestine. Members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, joined both demonstrations. The Israeli press and blogosphere are full of voices raised in support of the Palestinian UN move. (The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz editorialized in favor of Friday’s march.) For these Israelis, the issue is a simple one of justice, the long-overdue reckoning with the aspirations of an occupied and dispossessed people. But the issue is also purely pragmatic: as a demonstrator’s sign said in Tel Aviv, “A Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest.”

The agitated alarms sounded by the Netanyahu government, the embrace of that government’s paranoia by the US political establishment, and the confusion about what exactly the UN General Assembly can legally accomplish in September all distract from the most important fact: The principle of Palestinian independence is not radical. An international consensus supports it. Seventy countries already recognize Palestine as a state, and many others are prepared to.

Indeed, this vision has defined even Israeli politics for more than a decade. Israeli leaders, negotiators, and majorities of the Israeli public have accepted the Palestinian national future as essential to Israel’s. In May, President Obama reiterated that consensus when he proposed “the 1967 borders with land swaps” as the established basis for agreement.

The Israeli government is worried about a growing world movement to “delegitimize” the Jewish state, and well it might be. Israel has its enemies, including many who deny its basic right to exist at all. But among Israelis - and among Israel’s well-proven friends - there is concern about an increasingly intransigent right-wing government that sees only menace in every effort to break the status quo. The government’s own actions - or overreactions - can themselves undermine Israel’s global legitimacy. It’s already happening.

That is why the UN drama in September (the first act of which takes place next week at a Security Council debate) remains an opportunity for Israel. Stop the train wreck by stepping back from harsh rejection of the Palestinian initiative. Instead, embrace what is true and already accepted in it - the right of the Palestinian people to their own state. This is the way out of the trap Israel has created for itself.

There is little reason to imagine the Netanyahu government pursuing such a course. But Israel’s friends can join with those Israelis who bravely insist on a different path. President Obama, meanwhile, should reverse himself, and refuse to veto a resolution that only embodies a Palestinian hope that America has long endorsed.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.