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A radical Mideast proposal: What if the U.S. recognized a Palestinian state now?

U.S. President Bill Clinton presides over the 1993 peace accords signed at the White House by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The aim was a negotiated deal ending decades of conflict between the two sides. But no agreement was reached. Today there's talk about recognizing a Palestinian state first and then negotiating the details afterward.
Ron Edmonds
/
AP
U.S. President Bill Clinton presides over the 1993 peace accords signed at the White House by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The aim was a negotiated deal ending decades of conflict between the two sides. But no agreement was reached. Today there's talk about recognizing a Palestinian state first and then negotiating the details afterward.

When Israel declared statehood in 1948, U.S. President Harry Truman gave his endorsement just 11 minutes later, making the United States the first country to recognize Israel as a nation.

"But don't think that decision to recognize Israel was an easy one," Truman said in a video filmed after he left the White House. "What I was trying to do was to find a homeland for the Jews and still be just with the Arabs."

There were lots of unanswered questions at the time. Israel didn't have fixed borders. The new nation was facing war with multiple Arab states. It wasn't clear whether the new Jewish state would even survive.

Yet Truman used his presidential authority to act unilaterally.

Europeans broach the issue

Today, there's talk of a similar approach with the Palestinians, though such a move is still considered a long shot.

Several European leaders and diplomats have raised the possibility, including British Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

Such recognition "can't come at the start of the [negotiating] process, but it doesn't have to be the very end of the process," Cameron said. "It could be something that we consider as this process, as this advance to a solution, becomes more real. What we need to do is give the Palestinian people a horizon towards a better future, the future of having a state of their own."

Actually, 139 nations already recognize a Palestinian state. At the United Nations, the Palestinians have something called "nonmember observer status."

This gives the Palestinians a seat at the U.N. but not much more in practical terms. Notably, no Western power has recognized Palestinian statehood.

So would recognition by the West, particularly by the U.S., be a big deal?

"Well, it's important, actually," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank. "We need pressure [on Israel] from the United States and the rest of the world."

He said negotiations, which began in the 1990s, have always given Israel the upper hand.

"For the past 30 years, the subject of creating a Palestinian state was left solely to Israel," he said. "So Israel has a veto power on whether to create a Palestinian state or not."

Upfront recognition, he argues, would strengthen the Palestinians at the bargaining table.

Strong Israeli opposition

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long resisted moves toward a negotiated agreement that would create a Palestinian state. He's even more staunchly opposed to unilateral recognition.

"Under my leadership, Israel will continue to strongly oppose unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state," Netanyahu said recently. "And when do they want to give such unilateral recognition? After the terrible massacre of Oct. 7. There can be no greater and unprecedented prize to terrorism."

Netanyahu was referring to the Hamas assault on southern Israel five months ago. Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said the Israeli public is in no mood for concessions to the Palestinians.

"You have an Israeli population which right now is dead set against talking about Palestinian statehood," said Oren.

Oren acknowledged that Israel will face pressure to make political compromises to the Palestinians when the current fighting ends.

But he doesn't think the U.S. will reverse long-standing policy that calls for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate an end to the conflict.

"When Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken says that Israel must talk about a pathway to a Palestinian state, I think Israel should say, 'OK, we'll talk about a pathway.' A pathway can be many things. It's not committing you in any way and is keeping the dialogue open," Oren said.

A history of failed peace talks

The current war in Gaza is the bloodiest fighting ever between the two sides, and a negotiated deal right now doesn't appear realistic.

The last time the Israelis and Palestinians appeared close to a negotiated solution was the year 2000, when President Bill Clinton brought the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Camp David, outside Washington, D.C., for two weeks of intensive negotiations. But no agreement was reached, and a Palestinian uprising began shortly afterward.

U.S. recognition of a Palestinian state isn't a magic solution, said Larry Garber, a retired U.S. diplomat who once ran the United States' aid program — USAID — in the Palestinian territories. But he adds, it could improve the prospect for negotiations.

"I think the most important part is just the psychological impact that it would have in the Palestinian territories," he said. "It's going to give a big boost to those who've been pushing peaceful negotiations with the goal of creating a Palestinian state."

The U.S. State Department is looking at the possibility of statehood recognition as it carries out a broad review of U.S. policies in the region.

But right now, there's no sign the U.S. is likely to take such a step, and all the thorny regional issues remain.

Those include the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as a capital, as well as the fate of a half-million Jewish settlers in the West Bank. In addition, security arrangements would have to be worked out, along with the Palestinian "right of return" to homes and land lost in conflicts dating back to the 1948 war.

Like others long involved with this issue, Garber said he's realistic.

"This isn't something that the U.S. can make happen tomorrow," Garber said.

But after so many failed efforts, he thinks it's time for a new approach.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. He was based in Jerusalem from 2000 to 2007.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.