By Steve Coll

Nauru is a destitute Pacific island with a population of just over nine thousand. The country’s failed economic strategies have included offshore-banking schemes and providing Australia with refugee-detention services. For a time, the national airline had no plane—it had been repossessed. Nauru is also, however, one of the hundred and ninety-three member states in good standing at the United Nations. The underpublicized countries of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu are also in. Kosovo and Taiwan are not. South Sudan was the most recent to be welcomed, in July. South Ossetia remains on the outside. As on a night-club rope line, if you have to ask what it takes to get into the U.N., you may not be suitable for admittance.

Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, has provoked the latest turmoil in Middle Eastern diplomacy by suggesting that the U.N. should recognize Palestine as a state, even though it is clear that no such nation can be self-sustaining without a negotiated peace with Israel. Abbas has not yet pursued the fullest membership rights, but he has implied that an elevated observer status is in order, whereby Palestine would be sanctified as a formal country.

Under international law, the Palestinian case is strong but not airtight. The most oft-cited authority, the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, requires a state to have a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and the “capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” Palestine—the West Bank and Gaza, as mapped by the 1967 prewar borders with Israel—possesses the first three. Yet the unresolved divide between Hamas, which rules Gaza and seeks Israel’s overthrow, and the Palestinian Authority, which holds the West Bank and accepts Israel in principle, casts doubt on a combined Palestine’s ability to act coherently.

Arguments about statehood are, in any event, just a proxy for arguments about power and justice. In that respect, the case for Palestine is compelling. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian leaders have been told repeatedly that if they organized themselves peacefully and negotiated in good faith with Israel they would win statehood. Their performance has often disappointed: Yasir Arafat eschewed a deal with Israel in 2000; Hamas has persistently launched indiscriminate attacks and broadcast anti-Semitism. Yet, under the Palestinian Authority’s sway, the West Bank now resembles a legitimate state more closely than at any time since 1967. Two years ago, under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Authority embarked on a building-and-reform program to improve governance. Its security forces still mete out abuses, but Palestinian leaders have delivered on many of their pledges. In April, a World Bank committee affirmed that the Authority is “well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.”

Last year, President Barack Obama, in his annual speech to the General Assembly, devoted considerable attention to the Palestinian cause. He declared, in support of renewed talks with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “We can say this time will be different,” adding, “If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations—an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.” But that hope has not yielded a workable plan. Many Palestinian leaders have therefore concluded that it may be impossible to achieve statehood through negotiations with Netanyahu. Their pessimism is well grounded; the evidence suggests that he seeks only to fob off the Palestinian Authority, as well as his allies in the United States and Europe, in order to buy time to bankroll more settlements on the West Bank, which will change the contours of the conflict. Nor is there any sign that Israeli domestic politics will soon yield a coalition different from the type Netanyahu oversees, in which uncompromising, expansionist parties hold decisive influence. Read more…

 As published in The New Yorker (September 26, 2011 issue).


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