Intelligence Squared

Palestine’s Bid for U.N. Membership is Dangerous and Wrong

With the Jan. 10 Slate/Intelligence Squared debate approaching, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold explains why the Palestinian effort destabilizes the region.

Dore Gold, former Israeli representative to the U.N.

Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Dore Gold, formerly an Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and a foreign policy adviser to Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, has an encyclopedic memory of the historical details that make the Arab-Israeli conflict so complicated. He remembers the carnage that ensued, in 2005, when Israeli troops last withdrew from the Gaza Strip. (“Rocket fire increased by 500 percent between 2005 and 2006,” he told me.) And he disputes the notion that Israeli settlements are destroying the peace process, pointing out that they take up only 1.9 percent of the West Bank.

Gold believes that the Palestinian effort to obtain statehood through United Nations membership poses an unthinkable security risk to the Israeli people, which is why he will argue that the international community should reject Palestine’s petition to join the U.N. as a member state at the Slate/Intelligence Squared Debate on Jan. 10. Recently I caught up with Gold—now president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs—about the Arab Spring, the problem with Hamas, and whether or not his many years around the negotiating table have tarnished his view of human nature.

Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Slate: You’ve expressed reservations about the Palestinian hope to carve out a state along the 1967 borders. What’s a more rational starting place for negotiations about borders?

Dore Gold: First of all, let me be very specific. My objection to the Palestinian position is chiefly over the issue of borders and security. On this point, Israel has vital needs which have been expressed by the main authors of the national security doctrine, such as Rabin, Sharon, and Dayan, since 1967. Therefore, my concern is how to protect those vital Israeli interests in any future negotiation.

Slate: What are some of those vital interests?

Gold: The fathers of Israel’s security doctrine always viewed the Jordan Valley as the front line of Israel defense. When Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, it learned again the importance of controlling the outer perimeter of the territory where it is waging a counterinsurgency campaign. For example, when Israel left the Philadelphi Route, which was the outer perimeter of Gaza, the entire area was penetrated by massive arms smuggling, including Grad rockets from Iran. This gave Hamas the ability to strike deep into Southern Israel, which previously it did not have. By analogy, should Israel abandon the Jordan Valley, it is very likely that major Jihadi organizations, from Southern Syria down to Yemen, would seek to smuggle weaponry into the West Bank, putting Israeli civilian aviation over Ben Gurion airport and most of Israel’s large cities at risk.*

Slate: So Israel’s biggest objection to the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership is that the borders Abbas has proposed [the 1967 lines] would leave Israelis unsafe?

Gold: The Palestinian Authority’s bid for U.N. membership is part of a unilateralist course that it decided upon a few years ago. Rather than pursuing a negotiated peace, which would require the Palestinian leadership to make certain concessions, just like Israel, Mahmoud Abbas decided to lean on the international community to obtain statehood, without having to agree, for example, to demilitarization. 

Borders are another issue. Israel is entitled to “secure and recognized boundaries,” according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. It is not required to withdraw to the pre-1967 line, which was never an international border, but only an armistice line, where the armies stopped in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.  

Slate: Earlier this month, the General Assembly issued a statement affirming the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Where does this leave the Israelis? What are they thinking now?

Gold: I think the point is that any move of the Palestinians towards statehood has to be negotiated with Israel. Israel learned the hard way that if it just abandons territory without putting any security measures into place, it will face unbridled escalation. If you compare the number of rockets that were fired at Israel in 2005, the year we got out of Gaza, to the number of rockets fired in 2006, the year afterward, there was a 500 percent increase in rocket fire. So we cannot—Israel cannot—permit a situation to arise in the West Bank which simply replicates the chaos of what appeared in Gaza.

Slate: But if a state emerged from the U.N. proposal—in other words, if Palestinians got the borders they wanted—wouldn’t there be less motivation to attack Israel?

Gold: That was part of the thinking of the Sharon government back in 2005. But alas, as I said, it doesn’t seem that the 1967 line is the line that will reduce the hostility on the other side. There are other factors involved.

Slate: What would reduce the hostility?

Gold: The sad truth is that this is not a territorial conflict, especially as the role of Hamas on the Palestinian side grows. Even the Fatah leadership insists that Israel will have to take in the Palestinian refugees, and even evict Jewish residents from those areas, before they will talk about ending the conflict. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, wrote in the Guardian on Dec. 10, 2010 that there were 7 million Palestinian refugees, and that disregarding “their aspirations to return to their homeland would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel untenable.”

This is an impossible condition for Israel to ever meet, since it would fundamentally change the demographic makeup of Israel itself. Because this is the intent of the Palestinian leadership, this is why it refuses to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, even though the Israelis are ready to accept a Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian leadership unfortunately still hopes to preserve the option of using the Israeli Arab population and a flood of Palestinian refugees in order to convert Israel from a Jewish state into another Arab state.

Slate: Your debate opponent, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, says Hamas has renounced violence as a form of resistance and accepted a two-state solution. Would Israel ever collaborate with a Palestinian government that included Hamas?

Gold: There’s a serious problem with Hamas. Hamas has a national charter from 1988 which calls for the complete destruction of Israel. It even calls for attacking Jews anywhere in the world. If Hamas wanted to make itself into a diplomatic partner, it would have to erase that charter. It would have to accept Israel’s right to exist. It would have to renounce violence and accept all previous agreements. But there is no indication that it will do this. In 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections, Mahmoud al-Zahar, the man who became the Hamas foreign minister in Gaza, was specifically asked if he was willing to change the Hamas charter. He said, “Not a single word.” So it seems that Hamas is ideologically rigid and locked into most of its old positions, even though it had every incentive in 2006 to change.

Slate: So last week’s reconciliation was an empty gesture?

Gold: I think Hamas is trying to find language that makes it easier for Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] to work with them. But Abbas is riding a tiger here. The Hamas leadership would like to ignite an intifada in the West Bank, which while declaratively aimed at Israel, will be intended to create chaos that will bring down Fatah control of the Palestinian Authority and replace it with Hamas control. This will bolster the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent movement, in a number of neighboring Arab countries, like Syria and Jordan. Abbas is making a big mistake. 

Slate: What actions might Israel take if the Palestinians achieved a status upgrade at the United Nations?

Gold: Well, we’ve already seen many actions the United States has taken in response to [the state of Palestine’s admission to] UNESCO. But Israel will leave itself a number of options to adopt, in the event that the Palestinians continue down the road of unilateralism.

Slate: What might some of those options be?

Gold: I wouldn’t want to try and specify.

Slate: Your debate opponents say that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to expanding the West Bank settlements shows that he is disingenuous about wanting a two-state solution.

Gold: I’ve always believed that the settlements are a side issue. What you have is a territorial dispute: The Palestinians have towns and villages that they’re building and Israel has its towns and villages where it’s building. The borders will not be decided by the rate of construction, but by an agreement that the parties reach.

Slate: The settlements aren’t a strategy to change the demography of the disputed areas?

Gold: Once Israel showed, in 2005, that it was prepared to pull out 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, it’s hard to argue that the settlements are the main factor determining the future borders of Israel.

Slate: But if they’re so insignificant, and they’re the one thing keeping the Palestinians from direct negotiations, is there a point where Israel just throws up its hands and agrees to a settlement freeze?

Gold: In 1993 when the original Oslo Accord was reached between Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, there was no settlement freeze in the agreement. And the two sides negotiated. When Ehud Barak went to Camp David and negotiated with Arafat under the Clinton administration, there was no settlement freeze. And finally when Ehud Olmert negotiated with Abu Mazen back in 2007, there was no settlement freeze.

The settlements are a red herring. The amount of territory they sit on is miniscule—only 1.9 percent of the West Bank. If you’re talking about 1.9 percent, and then somebody adds a few houses, you’re not undercutting the negotiations; you’re just addressing the needs of the people. Meanwhile, the Palestinians want to build a whole new city, called Rawabi, near Ramallah. Why not? They have needs; let them do it! Is that called a settlement?

Slate: Is the Palestinian drive for statehood a late manifestation of the Arab Spring?

Gold: The Palestinian agenda is very different from the agenda in the Arab countries. I think the actual drive for statehood, away from the context of negotiations, began in 2008, when the Palestinians saw Kosovo declare independence and seek U.N. membership. What’s happening now has its roots in that development, I think, and not in the Arab Spring.

Slate: How has the Arab Spring changed things for Israel?

Gold: The Arab Spring raises a great deal of uncertainty about Israel’s strategic environment. Nobody can write a guarantee to Israel that the regimes surrounding it today will be there in five years. Moreover, in Egypt’s case, Israel gave back the whole Sinai Peninsula, a huge amount of territory, to create a stable peace with Egypt. Now many voices coming out of the Islamist parties are calling for altering the peace treaty.

Slate: Has working on the Arab-Israeli conflict affected your view of human nature?

Gold: I believe that people are fundamentally good. I have spent many many hours as a negotiator with Mahmoud Abbas, with Yasser Arafat, and with the entire senior Palestinian leadership. I’ve also been an envoy to Arab countries—Jordan, Egypt, Gulf states—and I believe that there are sometimes conflicts that are very difficult. It’s not a question of a personal rapport. Nobody has solved the Kashmir problem. Nobody has solved the issue of the Kuril Islands, which are Japanese but occupied by Russia. No one has solved the dispute over the Western Sahara or Northern Cyprus. So you have many challenging issues and you should work together to resolve what you can. But you should not give up because you can’t bridge every single issue on the negotiating agenda.

Slate: Do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved?

Gold: I think the Israelis and the Palestinians have fundamental interests in surmounting these problems. But we’re in a difficult period. The Muslim Brotherhood is victorious in Egypt and may come to power in Syria. That only strengthens Hamas and makes it more difficult for Fatah to make the concessions that they will need to deliver at the negotiating table in the future.

Slate: Do you consider yourself an idealist or a pragmatist?

Gold: [Laughs] Let’s put it this way: Idealism is the gasoline of political action. But pragmatism is also very much a part of my own personal approach. You need to understand the world you’re facing and try to make arrangements and take reality into account.

Slate: Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that the most he can hope for from a corrupt United Nations is the support of a “moral minority.” You were a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Do you share his low opinion of it?

Gold: What happened at the U.N. was a tragedy. When it was created in 1945, the initial members had to be countries that had declared war either on Nazi Germany or on imperial Japan; in essence, they were Allies. Because of the power of the democratic coalition in those early years, even countries like the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia had to acquiesce to the values of the United States and its allies, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, during the 1960s, new members from the Third World joined, some of which were Soviet client states. The whole tenor of the U.N. changed. Many of these countries became automatic adversaries of Israel. For instance, Arab countries came to certain African states and said, “We expect your support on this issue and then we’ll help you with your issues.” Even though Israel has excellent relations on a bilateral basis with many countries in Asia and Africa, picking on Israel became a part of U.N. bloc politics.

Are you getting all this? I’m giving you a lecture in international history.

Slate: My tape recorder is getting it! I can’t type that fast.

Gold: Fine. Look, in spite of everything I’m saying, we have to continue and try to find a way to peace. It’s doable but you have to learn the lessons of past failures and chart a new course. You have to reach agreements where you can.

Correction, Jan. 6, 2011: This interview contained a reference to the Gaza Strip that should have referred to the West Bank.