As President Bush considers an important speech on the Middle East, the idea of a limited Palestinian state is one option on the table. There is only one way such an option can work: as part of a staged implementation of a final settlement, after the parties agree on its parameters. Establishing such a limited state with the idea that it would then negotiate issues of final settlement with Israel would be a serious mistake that would come back to haunt the parties—and the United States.
Consider the problems. Any state, no matter how small, must have international borders and thus the capacity, if not the right, to import arms. It must be contiguous. So, Israel would have to remove some of its settlements and pay the domestic political price that comes with that.
The Palestinian Authority would face public fear that this small entity was the final state, which would thus be rejected by much of the Palestinian public. Arab states would be unlikely to provide the incentives that they offered Israel at the Beirut summit (normal relations with the Arab world) without a final settlement. So each side would have to pay a significant price while providing limited incentives to its public.
In the short term, it might be possible to limit violence and improve Palestinian lives—the best feature of such an option. But in the process of implementing this mini-state, and making the case for limiting the violence, each side would portray the agreement as a grand achievement. The United States, in its effort to rally international financial support for the Palestinian state, and to shift attention in the Middle East from the Arab-Israeli issue to Iraq, would undoubtedly do the same.
In the process, the Israeli public would feel that it had already done most of its compromising just by accepting a Palestinian state, while the Palestinians would believe that this was only a minor step in the process to get full Israeli withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the meantime, all the tough issues would remain: Jerusalem, refugees, borders and settlements.
The primary advantage would be that the negotiations would now take place between two legally sovereign states. But the asymmetry of power would continue: The Palestinians would have little leverage in negotiating the remaining issues, and would be increasingly under pressure to allow a “military option,” this time with the capacity to import arms.
The Israeli public, feeling it had already offered a lot, would have even less tolerance for violence emanating from a Palestinian state. Worse yet, each side would maneuver to maximize its leverage over the remaining difficult issues in a way that would make their resolution even more difficult. It would be Oslo all over again, except that the public on both sides would have less patience and would not accept mere promises.
From the U.S. point of view, it may seem that such an option could at least buy time, perhaps a couple of years—seemingly enough to go to war with Iraq. But the Iraq war option is no less than a five-year effort, if one considers that the goal of removing Saddam Hussein is the easy part compared with the essential objective of ensuring a favorable and stable outcome in Iraq and the rest of the region afterward.
And just as this difficult later task was starting, the Palestinian-Israeli issue might be stalemated again over details of a final settlement. The ground in the Arab world could become more fertile for recruitment into global terror than before. Saddam Hussein might be gone, but terror might increase.
All this, of course, assumes the best-case scenario in the early stages of implementing a mini-Palestinian state and leading up to a possible war with Iraq.
It is tempting to search for an easy way out, but no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be arrived at on the cheap. The administration is correctly trying to balance demands in the Arab world for a comprehensive settlement with the reality that Israel’s current government prefers incrementalism. But there are two ways to mediate these two forces: the easy way of postponing the tough issues yet again, in order to achieve a short-term success, and the more difficult but prudent course of urging the parties to agree on the final parameters of a settlement, while accommodating Ariel Sharon through incremental implementation of an agreement.
Nothing less than the latter path can lead to peace and stability in the Middle East.