Aaron Miller: Jimmy Carter's call for US to recognize the State of Palestine is a mistake
Key to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict does not rest in President Obama's hands, nor in those of his successor, he says
Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Writing in the New York Times, former President Jimmy Carter this week called on President Barack Obama to join with 137 countries and recognize the State of Palestine. Arguing that the two-state solution is dying and that something must be done to keep hope alive, Carter wrote: “I fear for the spirit of Camp David. We must not squander this chance.”
Yet having spent the better part of my adult professional life working to promote, facilitate and consummate negotiations between Arabs and Israelis, my advice is precisely the opposite of Mr. Carter’s.
I completely understand the urgent desire on the part of American peacemakers to do something. And in the case of Mr. Carter, that passion is especially strong. Few Israelis and Egyptians I know would take issue with the fact that had it not been for the role played by the US, led by President Jimmy Carter – building on Anwar Sadat’s historic visit and Menachem Begin’s strong response – there would have been no Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
President Obama had, for his part, an eight-year shot at resolving this issue. Yet while the two-state solution is indeed in peril, there’s little he can do in the next couple of months that will change that.
As hard as it may be to accept right now, a unilateral move might make matters worse. And the reality is that any initiative the United States proposes – especially recognition of Palestinian statehood – would anyway have a very real chance of being overturned or undermined by the next administration, which would leave the Obama legacy in tatters, while diminishing US credibility in the process.
There are several reasons why that would be the case, but three stand out:
First, any initiative undertaken during the presidential transition in the United States would need to address not just Palestinian needs, but those of Israelis, too. No administration I’ve ever served in took a unilateral, consequential step related to the peace process that didn’t bear this fundamental principle in mind. Indeed, it was Mr. Carter’s own sensitivity not just to Sadat’s concerns but to Begin’s that produced the peace treaty. And right now, it’s hard to see any balanced package of steps on the peace process that would be accepted by both sides and that would create an enduring foundation on which to build. Potential steps such as a presidential speech or a UN Security Council resolution laying out the parameters for a two-state solution would certainly have contained elements that both sides liked but also disliked.
Second, US recognition of Palestinian statehood would almost certainly buoy Palestinian hopes – but alienate the Israeli government, while having little appreciable impact on the realization of Palestinian statehood. In fact, this kind of symbolic act would inevitably widen the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, while ultimately increasing frustration and the risk of more violence by raising Palestinian expectations without any conceivable promise of delivering.
In response to any unilateral declaration, the Israelis – already deeply committed to settlements – would likely respond with steps of their own that go beyond what they are already doing, such as building heavily in east Jerusalem, moving forward on the controversial E-1 project and perhaps even annexing portions of the West Bank.
Many argue that the situation on the ground can’t get much worse. But even if that is the case (and anyone familiar with this conflict knows things can certainly get a lot worse) one still has to ask what the point of unilateral recognition would be if it didn’t take both sides in a positive direction. As a one-off symbolic step, one unmoored from any negotiating process and not followed up by efforts to create some kind of breakthrough, such an initiative would be, at best, a key to an empty room. At worst, it could unlock a host of unpredictable – and mostly negative – consequences.
Third, there’s the politically inconvenient question of how such a step would be viewed by the incoming administration, which in a few short months will have the power to shape US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Back in 1988, I participated in an effort by the United States to initiate a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization during the transition from the Reagan administration to George H. W. Bush. That effort was welcomed by the incoming administration. But imagine what a Republican-controlled Congress would do if the outgoing Obama administration tried to recognize the State of Palestine or fashion a new Security Council resolution. Not only would the incoming administration move to reverse any initiative, a Trump administration keen to distance itself from what President Obama had done would likely move to assuage Israeli concerns. As a result, not only would Obama’s legacy be exposed as empty rhetoric, but the new administration might find itself with an uptick in tension and violence as Palestinians react to Israeli efforts to demonstrate that it, too, can take unilateral actions.
President Carter had his shot at Arab-Israeli negotiations, and, with the help of Sadat and Begin, made the most of it. President Obama has now had his. In the last couple of months of his administration, he should let this issue rest. Instead, he should adopt the diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath and do no harm. Because right now there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to do good.
Ultimately, the key to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict does not rest in President Obama’s hands, nor in those of his successor. It’s the parties, stupid. And neither they nor the peace process are ready yet for prime time.