Intelligence Squared

The Granddaddy of Dumb Ideas

Why Aaron David Miller thinks admitting a Palestinian state to the United Nations would be a terrible move.

For someone who’s spent his life practicing the delicate art of diplomacy, Aaron David Miller can be pretty blunt. “The notion Palestinians are cooking up, for U.N. action on Palestinian statehood this fall, takes dumb to a new level,” he’s said. Though the former State Department adviser and Middle East expert feels for sovereignty-hungry Palestinians, he wants to dispel the myth that taking action—even destructive action—is better than doing nothing. So on Jan. 10, at the Slate/Intelligence Squared debate in New York, Miller will argue against the motion “The United Nations should admit Palestine as a full member state.” Read an interview with fellow naysayer Dore Gold here. Evaluate a counterargument by Mustafa Barghouti, who supports the motion, here.    

Aaron Miller.
Aaron David Miller

Photo by Dave Hawxhurst, the Wilson Center.

It can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t happen. Such are the sad prospects of the Palestinian plan to achieve statehood through membership in the U.N.

Right now, no idea, particularly the semisacred principle of negotiations on the core issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees, will bring Palestinians any closer to realizing their legitimate national aspirations for statehood. But neither desperation nor sympathy for a deserving cause should compel us to embrace and pursue bad ideas that might only make matters worse. And admitting the nonstate of Palestine to the United Nations—the granddaddy of dumb ideas—will do precisely that.

I should know. Having spent 20 years providing both very good and very bad advice on Arab-Israeli issues to half a dozen secretaries of state, I’ve come up with my fair share of doozies. These included inviting Yasser Arafat to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and encouraging then-President Clinton to believe he could negotiate a conflict-ending agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit in July 2000.

It must be something in the water that leads well-intentioned American mediators to assume that trying anything to keep the peace process alive—no matter how wrong-headed, risky, or dysfunctional—is better than not acting at all. This obsession with process over results, motion over movement, is the solutionist’s curse. Once you conclude that action is mandatory, no matter the cost, you begin to slide down a slippery slope. At the bottom of the hill, failure almost always awaits.

I’ll never forget how inspired I was by President Clinton’s comment shortly before Camp David, that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all. That’s a noble sentiment, quintessentially American. But on reflection, it’s more appropriate for a high-school football team; it certainly isn’t a substitute for the foreign policy of the most consequential nation on earth.

Americans aren’t alone with their illusions.

In the world of Israelis and Palestinians, too, good judgment seems to have gone the way of the dodo. An Israeli prime minister continues to believe that the status quo with the Palestinians is manageable and preferable to taking any risks to change it; and that the continuation of settlement activity is not only politically warranted but wise.

A Palestinian president seems to think that the pressures of the Arab Spring/Winter and the impossibility of negotiations require a push for faux unity with Hamas and faux statehood at the United Nations. And he realizes, as does every other Palestinian I’ve talked to, that both measures will fail.

The Palestinians have thus shed one set of pipe dreams for another. They are quite right in concluding that this Israeli prime minister with this Israeli government can’t or won’t meet their core requirements on Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security. Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu has recently insisted on a fifth requirement: that Palestinians accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. And they have rightly assessed that President Obama has no intention in 2012 of taking any risks on an issue that can only hurt his re-election campaign.

So instead of banking on an arena in which they currently have no leverage (negotiations), Palestinians have shifted their efforts to another in which they believe they do: the court of international opinion. Here they imagine they can gain admission to international organizations, and pressure—perhaps even sanction and isolate—Israel and the Americans.

But they’re wrong.

First, the Palestinians cannot succeed in gaining admission to the U.N. as a member state. We’ve already seen a trial run in September and October. The United States will veto, and has already persuaded others on the Security Council to oppose Abbas’ petition. Nor does winning by losing seem to have gotten much for Palestinians so far, except a UNESCO admission which prompted the United States to cut off the program’s funding. The big news for Palestinians in recent months wasn’t the U.N. initiative at all, but the Israeli-Hamas prisoner release which won the Islamists far more credit than Abbas’ speech in New York.

Second, if Palestinians are going to pick a fight with the United States and Israel, it ought to be one that either gets them something tangible, increases their leverage, or creates problems in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The U.N. gambit did none of these things; instead, it just made it easier for Israelis to claim that it is the Palestinians who aren’t serious about negotiations. Third, sovereignty is designed—even as a symbol—to convey power, or at least to provide a foundation or launching pad for it. Statehood isn’t supposed to be a window through which the world sees weakness and fecklessness. But right now, that’s the Palestinian story. Prime Minister Fayyad has done a remarkable job in state and institution building, but his competence has only alienated the rest of the government—especially Hamas, which sees him as a threat to its authority. Meanwhile Hamas runs Gaza, Israelis control at least 30 percent of the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority has no say in managing the borders, water, or air space of the territory left over. What we now witness is a Palestinian Humpty-Dumpty: a fractured nonstate.

Does anyone want to see such an entity admitted into the United Nations? The symbolic conferral of autonomy may temporarily boost Palestinian morale, but it will solve nothing and could even entrench the Israelis deeper in their demands. Nobody can look at the Palestinians today and not be both sympathetic and empathetic to their cause. They’ve suffered long enough and should have an independent state. But it will not come via the U.N., not this way.

Negotiations between empowered Israelis and Palestinians willing and able to pay the price of a settlement (and most likely brokered by an American mediator prepared to be fair, reassuring and tough when necessary) would remain the only possible path to a solution, if there was one. But right now, there isn’t.