JERUSALEM — With revolutionary fervor sweeping the Middle East, Israel is under mounting pressure to make a far-reaching offer to the Palestinians or face a United Nations vote welcoming the State of Palestine as a member whose territory includes all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority has been steadily building support for such a resolution in September, a move that could place Israel into a diplomatic vise. Israel would be occupying land belonging to a fellow United Nations member, land it has controlled and settled for more than four decades and some of which it expects to keep in any two-state solution.
“We are facing a diplomatic-political tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of and that will peak in September,” said Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, at a conference in Tel Aviv last month. “It is a very dangerous situation, one that requires action.” He added, “Paralysis, rhetoric, inaction will deepen the isolation of Israel.”
With aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thrashing out proposals to the Palestinians, President Shimon Peres is due at the White House on Tuesday to meet with President Obama and explore ways out of the bind. The United States is still uncertain how to move the process forward, according to diplomats here. Israel’s offer is expected to include transfer of some West Bank territory outside its settlements to Palestinian control and may suggest a regional component — an international conference to serve as a response to the Arab League peace initiatives.
But Palestinian leaders, emboldened by support for their statehood bid, dismiss the expected offer as insufficient and continue to demand an end to settlement building before talks can begin. “We want to generate pressure on Israel to make it feel isolated and help it understand that there can be no talks without a stop to settlements,” said Nabil Shaath, who leads the foreign affairs department of Fatah, the main party of the Palestinian Authority. “Without that, our goal is membership in the United NationsGeneral Assembly in September.”
Israeli, Palestinian and Western officials interviewed on the current impasse, most of them requesting anonymity, expressed an unusual degree of pessimism about a peaceful resolution. All agreed that the turmoil across the Middle East had prompted opposing responses from Israel and much of the world. Israel, seeing the prospect of even more hostile governments as its neighbors, is insisting on caution and time before taking any significant steps. It also wants to build in extensive long-term security guarantees in any two-state solution, but those inevitably infringe the sovereignty of a Palestinian state.
The international community tends to draw the opposite conclusion. Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain, for example, said last week that one of the most important lessons to be learned from the Arab Spring was that “legitimate aspirations cannot be ignored and must be addressed.” He added, referring to Israeli-Palestinian talks, “It cannot be in anyone’s interests if the new order of the region is determined at a time of minimum hope in the peace process.”
The Palestinian focus on September stems not only from the fact that the General Assembly holds its annual meeting then. It is also because Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced in September 2009 that his government would be ready for independent statehood in two years and that Mr. Obama said last September that he expected the framework for an independent Palestinian state to be declared in a year.
Mr. Obama did not indicate what the borders of that state would be, assuming they would be determined through direct negotiations. But with Israeli-Palestinian talks broken off months ago and the Middle East in the process of profound change, many argue that outside pressure is needed.
Germany, France and Britain say negotiations should be based on the 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps, exactly what the Netanyahu government rejects because it says it predetermines the outcome. “Does the world think it is going to force Israel to declare the 1967 lines and giving up Jerusalem as a basis for negotiation?” asked a top Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That will never happen.” While the Obama administration has referred in the past to the 1967 lines as a basis for talks, it has not decided whether to back the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — the other members of the so-called quartet — in declaring them the starting point, diplomats said. The quartet meets on April 15 in Berlin.
Israel, which has settled hundreds of thousands of Jews inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem, acknowledges that it will have to withdraw from much of the land it now occupies there. But it hopes to hold onto the largest settlement blocs and much of East Jerusalem as well as the border to the east with Jordan and does not want to enter into talks with the other side’s position as the starting point.
That was true even before its closest ally in the Arab world, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was driven from power, helping fuel protest movements that now roil other countries, including Jordan, which has its own peace agreement with Israel.
“Whatever we put forward has to be grounded in security arrangements because of what is going on regionally,” said Zalman Shoval, one of a handful of Netanyahu aides drawing up the Israeli proposal that may be delivered as a speech to the United States Congress in May. “We are facing the rebirth of the eastern front as Iran grows strong. We have to secure the Jordan Valley. And no Israeli government is going to move tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes quickly.”
Those Israelis live in West Bank settlements, the source of much of the disagreement not only with the Palestinians but with the world. Not a single government supports Israel’s settlements. The Palestinians say the settlements are proof that the Israelis do not really want a Palestinian state to arise since they are built on land that should go to that state.
“All these years, the main obstacle to peace has been the settlements,” Nimer Hammad, a political adviser to President Abbas, said. “They always say, ‘but you never made it a condition of negotiations before.’ And we say, ‘that was a mistake.’ ”
The Israelis counter that the real problem is Palestinian refusal to accept openly a Jewish state here and ongoing anti-Israeli incitement and praise of violence on Palestinian airwaves.
Another central obstacle to the establishment of a State of Palestine has been the division between the West Bank and Gaza, the first run by the Palestinian Authority and the second by Hamas. Lately, President Abbas has sought to bridge the gap, asking to go to Gaza to seek reconciliation through an agreed interim government that would set up parliamentary and presidential elections.
But Hamas, worried it would lose such elections and hopeful that the regional turmoil could work in its favor — that Egypt, for example, might be taken over by its ally, the Muslim Brotherhood — has reacted coolly.
Efforts are still under way to restart peace talks but if, as expected, negotiations do not resume, come September the Palestinian Authority seems set to go ahead with plans to ask the General Assembly to accept it as a member. Diplomats involved in the issue say most countries — more than 100 — are expected to vote yes, meaning it will pass. (There are no vetoes in the General Assembly so the United States cannot save Israel as it often has in the Security Council.)
What happens then? Some Palestinian leaders say relations with Israel would change.
“We will re-examine our commitments toward Israel, especially our security commitments,” suggested Hanna Amireh, who is on the 18-member ruling board of the Palestine Liberation Organization, referring to cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli troops. “The main sense about Israel is that we are fed up.” Mr. Shaath said Israel would then be in daily violation of the rights of a fellow member state and diplomatic and legal consequences could follow, all of which would be painful for Israel.
In the Haaretz newspaper on Thursday, Ari Shavit, who is a political centrist, drew a comparison between 2011 and the biggest military setback Israel ever faced, the 1973 war.
He wrote that “2011 is going to be a diplomatic 1973,” because a Palestinian state will be recognized internationally. “Every military base in the West Bank will be contravening the sovereignty of an independent U.N. member state.” He added, “A diplomatic siege from without and a civil uprising from within will grip Israel in a stranglehold.”