Recognition of a State of Palestine


Here is a draft of a statement Australia should advise President Obama to make:


If certain conditions are met, the United States will give full recognition to a state of Palestine and sponsor its full membership of the United Nations.

What are those conditions? First, new elections, in which residents of both the West Bank and Gaza take part, to elect a new Palestinian Parliament and President—actual elections, not a promise of elections in the future.

Second, a pledge by the newly-elected Palestinian government that Palestine will fulfil the ordinary obligations imposed on every state by international law—including two obligations in particular, namely the obligation not to make attacks on other recognised states, including Israel, and the obligation not to allow Palestinian territory to be used to launch attacks on other states, including Israel. This requires that the Palestinian government control its territory.

Hence the third (and final) condition is that the new government of Palestine put forward a credible[1] plan for establishing effective control over its territory, perhaps with international assistance.

When these conditions are met, Palestine will have a unified, democratically-elected government, credibly committed to peace with its neighbours. This is all anyone can reasonably demand or hope for.

Therefore, if these conditions are met while I am President of the United States, I pledge that I will promptly give full US recognition of a state of Palestine.

I can make that pledge because, under US constitutional law, the President alone has power to recognise a foreign state.[2] It is a power not shared with Congress. Possible opposition from some members of Congress will not deter me from recognising a state of Palestine if and as soon as the conditions I have set out are met.

About borders I have nothing new to say.[3] When President Truman recognised Israel, Israel’s borders were not finally determined. Indeed, the borders of Israel are still not settled; since Israel and Palestine will have a common border, the borders of one cannot be determined without determining the borders of the other. The exact line of the border will be negotiated between Israel and Palestine. But state recognition does not have to wait until these negotiations conclude.

After Palestine is recognised as a state by the US and other states, negotiations between Palestine and Israel will continue over the details of the borders, and also over other difficult matters, such as the return or compensation of refugees and the status and future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The US is always ready to encourage and help such negotiations, but we do not say that Palestine cannot be recognised as a state until negotiations have succeeded. The three conditions I have set out—new elections, a pledge to fulfil the ordinary obligations of international law, and a credible plan for establishing control—are the only conditions. My pledge is that as soon as those conditions are met, I will as President give full US recognition to Palestine as a state, and the US will sponsor the admission of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations.

I am not proposing that Palestine be recognised now. My proposal is that the Australian Foreign Minister suggest to the US administration that President Obama make a public statement (drafted above) offering full recognition of a state of Palestine if and as soon as the Palestinians meet certain reasonable conditions, without waiting for the success of final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. (A state can be recognised even while its borders are disputed.)

Is Palestine Australia’s business? Australia has a significant Muslim population, its neighbour, Indonesia, has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, and there are Muslim populations in Malaysia, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand and other Asian countries. Muslims everywhere are antagonised against “the West” partly because they see the US and its allies as regularly supporting Israel against the Palestinians.[4] Australia is a member of the Security Council and an ally of the US; we should, if we can, suggest to our allies solutions to security problems that affect them and us.

Would this be good for Israel?
It is very much in Israel’s interest that there be a democratic state of Palestine credibly pledged to act in accordance with international law and in control of its territory.[5]

What is the ideal outcome? The genesis of the Palestine/Israel conflict was ethnic nationalism. The ideal resolution would be two multicultural[7] states, one predominantly Jewish but with protection for Arab and other minorities, the other predominantly Arab but with protection for Jewish and other minorities. Thus a conditional offer of recognition would not imply the dismantling of Jewish settlements. The boundaries of the two states need not and should not attempt to divide Jews neatly from non-Jews, there should be no “transfer” of population, and no one should be deprived without their consent of citizenship they now have. Perhaps one day the two states will join a wider union.

Why not withhold recognition of Palestine until there is a “final status” agreement between Israel and the Palestinians? The US and Australian governments currently say that Palestinian statehood must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.[8] But it is very clear that bi-lateral negotiation between the Palestinians and Israel will never establish a state of Palestine. On both sides there are people who don’t want any agreement, or do want an agreement but only on unfeasible terms, and these people have the power to frustrate settlement. No leader on either side will ever be willing and politically able to make an offer that the leaders on the other side will be willing and able to accept as sufficient: a leader who offered too much, or accepted too little, would be removed, perhaps assassinated.

Mr Netanyahu is a member of the Likud party. The first plank of the original (1977) Likud party platform reads: “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace; therefore, Judea and Samaria [i.e. the West Bank] will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea [i.e. the Mediterranean] and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty” (italics added). Hence Mr Netanyahu’s 2002 position regarding a Palestinian state: “Not today, not tomorrow, not ever”. In his 2009 Bar Ilan speech Mr Netanyahu spoke of “a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state”, but this Palestinian state would not be a state in the ordinary sense of the term—it would lack essential attributes of sovereignty, notably a power of self-defence.[9] Over the years, the government of Israel has listed many conditions any Palestinian state would have to meet,[10] some clearly intended to make agreement impossible. “‘He supports the kind of conditions [the Palestinians] would never in the world accept,’ Benzion Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 news, as his son sat beside him. ‘That’s what I heard from him. Not from me. He put forth the conditions. These conditions, they will never accept them—not even one of them.’”[11]

There have been times when (I believe) both sides genuinely sought agreement—e.g. the Oslo talks, the Camp David negotiations, the Annapolis talks. Mr Netanyahu and the Likud were not in power at those times. Any Israeli government likely to be formed in the foreseeable future[12] will resolutely block any Palestinian state.

Why not wait until the US pressures both sides to accept a reasonable final settlement? Many people believe they already see the outlines of a reasonable deal, so, since the parties apparently can’t close the deal, perhaps the US and its allies should use  pressure to make them settle. But it is very clear that pressure will not produce a settlement. The US and its allies would never be willing to seriously try, and would never be able, to make Israel agree to anything Israeli leaders are not happy with. It would be an attempt to make the Likud party and their allies abandon their fundamental position. They would resist the pressure by every means and would never give in. My proposal is all carrot and no stick; it does not involve pressure on either party, but would instead offer an incentive to the Palestinians to do what is needed to reassure Israelis and make agreement on remaining issues more attainable.

Should bi-lateral negotiations be abandoned? Although bi-lateral negotiations will never achieve a Palestinian state, I do not suggest bi-lateral negotiation be abandoned. The approach I suggest does not rule out the current approach, or indeed any other attempt to reach a settlement. I am suggesting the opening of a new track, not the closing of any other track. Let bi-lateral negotiations continue (negotiation will in any case still be necessary after Palestine becomes a state), but meanwhile the US and its allies should offer the Palestinians recognition of a Palestinian state if and as soon as they do what is needed to give Israel a reasonable assurance of peace and security. Making this offer would not close off any other avenue.

Would this new approach succeed? If the US made the offer I suggest, it might at first be disregarded or rejected by the Palestinian factions and strongly opposed by the Netanyahu government and their US supporters. However, I would hope that if the offer remained open and was repeated, eventually public opinion in Palestine would move political leaders toward acceptance.[13]

Even if it was never accepted, the offer would at least do no harm: it would not prevent bi-lateral negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians, it would not block any other approach to the problem. Merely making the offer would greatly improve relations between “the West” and the Muslim world by showing clearly that the US and its allies are ready to accept a Palestinian state once the Palestinians meet genuinely reasonable conditions.

Would it involve negotiation with Hamas? The US would not negotiate with Fatah or Hamas or Israel or anyone else. The US President would announce conditions, the Palestinians, if they wanted recognition, would work out among themselves (perhaps with mediation from Egypt and other Arab states) how to meet the conditions. In the final stage, when the Palestinian government presented its plan for achieving control over its territory, discussion might be needed so that the President could satisfy himself that the plan for gaining control was credible—he might want amendments. But this discussion would be with representatives of an elected Palestinian government already committed to peace.

Is it too late for a two-state solution? Many people say that time has run out. If this is true, then there will be no peace and reconciliation between Israel and its neighbours, because there is no feasible alternative to the “two state” solution.[14] If time has indeed run out, what happens next? How does this end?

People say that the spread of Israeli settlements has made any viable, contiguous Palestine impossible. But this is on the mistaken assumption that Jews could not continue to live in Palestinian territory. The state of Palestine may include some of the settlements. Under a two-state solution, Jews could live in Palestine, just as Arabs live in Israel. (See my discussion here.)

Is this the time to make such an offer? Shouldn’t it wait until all violence ceases?[15] If conflict must first cease, there will never be a right time. It can’t be a rule that negotiations can never take place until the violence stops, because then a cease-fire could never be negotiated. Extremists who don’t want any settlement could always block negotiation by engaging in acts of violence.

However, what I am suggesting is not negotiation (see above), but a unilateral conditional offer relating to one of the important elements of a long-term settlement (the other elements remaining to be negotiated, between two states). The conditions of the offer are framed to put an end to violence—the newly-elected Palestinian government would pledge conformity with international law and would make a credible plan for preventing illegal violence. Making the offer now, when any solution seems remote, would help Palestinians begin the long journey toward peace.

Extremists can be moderated or controlled only by moderates of their own community. To control illegal violence requires much courage. Moderates need to be able to see that their efforts will not be futile. They need to be able to hold out hope of real improvement to the people they seek to influence. Hope for some clear benefit within reach is a stronger motive than hope for something distant and uncertain.

Are the suggested conditions appropriate? If not, they can be amended. The general form of my suggestion is that President Obama should say “If and as soon as you do X, Y and Z, I will recognise your state and sponsor your admission to the UN”. The purpose is to motivate changes that would make Palestine a democratic state well-governed state abiding by international law. For X, Y and Z substitute whatever seems appropriate to this purpose.

The conditions suggested—democratic government, acceptance of the obligations of international law and a credible plan for control over their territory—match the criteria the UN Charter (art. 4) specifies for UN membership: “Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations”.[16]

For more, see my papers:

The Israel/Palestinian conflict: How did it begin? Will it ever end?” and
Palestine: Another Approach
and other items on Palestine and Israel


John Kilcullen
30 January 2013 [edited 2017]

[1] Credible in the judgment of the US President.

[2] “Under the constitution of the United States, the President has exclusive authority to recognize or not to recognize a foreign state or government”; Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States §204, p. 89.

[3] 19 May 2011:  “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states”.

[4] “The [Israel/Palestinian] conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [CENTCOM Area of Responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas”; Statement of General Petraeus to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 16 March 2012.

[5] “Irving Wallach: Can I tell you - can I tell you this- can I tell you this that if you’re asking me, my view is that what’s needed to be done is to progress straightaway with the two sate solution. The establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, as far as I’m concerned, is an absolute priority. It is a priority for the Palestinians and it is a priority for Israelis. The occupation, and there has been partial evacuation, partial withdrawal by the Israelis of the West Bank, total withdrawal from the Gaza strip, but in my view what is needed is an end to all this occupation. We need a peace treaty between the Palestinians and Israelis. We need a Palestinian state alongside Israel. There is no substitute for it and that needs to be done now, full stop”, Q&A, 17 Sept. 2012.

[6] As an academic I have studied the development of religious toleration and liberalism in Europe (see  here, here, here, here, and here). It took European Christians hundreds of years of debate and bitter experience before they accepted the principle that coercive methods must not be used to prevent blasphemy and heresy or to enforce religious belief. The reasons that led most Christians eventually  to this conclusion are not easily transferrable to an Islamic context. There are Muslim thinkers working toward religious tolerance and liberalism, but their efforts are continually undermined by conflicts with “the West” that galvanise fundamentalists.

[7] Multiculturalism is the recognition that every state will include a plurality of culture groups and that no group should claim privileged status. Multiculturalism recognises that human beings have a right to go on living where they were born, or where they have moved to legitimately, and a right, while living there, to be treated with equal respect. It  rules out discrimination, transfer of population and genocide.

[8] See US H of R resolution and Senate  resolution in which Congress “reiterates its strong opposition to any attempt to establish or seek recognition of a Palestinian state outside of an agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians”.  Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Carr: “we wanted to offer hope to Palestinians but at the same time move them – to the extent that we can – towards negotiations with Israel which is the only way this is going to be resolved” (italics added).

[9] In 2002 Mr Netanyahu argued, in effect: The Palestinians can never have a state, because a state as commonly understood has certain attributes that Israel can never agree to. In 2009 his position was:  The Palestinians can have a “state”, but without those attributes. His language changed, but his real position did not change.

[10] See Israel’s reservations to the “road map of the Quartet”.  Israeli demands include control over Palestinian airspace, electromagnetic spectrum and water. There are also symbolic demands: the Palestinians must say that they recognise, not merely Israel’s right to exist (which the PLO recognised in 1993), but also Israel’s natural and historic right to exist as a Jewish state—implying that the train of events beginning from the Balfour declaration has been right and just and that Arab and other  non-Jewish citizens of Israel are second-class citizens. See Yonatan Touval.

[11] Tony Karon, Never Mind the Democrats’ Jerusalem Kerfuffle, Where’s the Peace Process?

[12] Observers of Israeli politics see a collapse of “the left”(see here), a swing to the right (here, here and here), including the rise of a leader advocating annexation of the West Bank (here and here). For comment on the outcome of the Israeli election see here and here.  On the other hand there is a “Palestinian implosion” (here). No political institutions are being built in Palestine: the legal successor of Abbas, if he dies in office, will be a member of Hamas (here). Negotiation between a rightist Israel and the weak and divided Palestinians (always plural) will get no where.

[13] See article by Nathan Brown: “There is a possible path forward out of this dreary political landscape. The most promising way to force Hamas to become more moderate is to force it to be more responsive to its own public. (As a leading Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian in neighboring Egypt told me when I asked him whether Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution: ‘They will have to. Their people will make them.’) And the most promising way to ensure such responsiveness is to speed up the reconciliation between the governments in the West Bank and Gaza, so that those governments can agree to hold elections.” The possibility of recognition after elections could speed this process.

[14] See Gorenberg, Shimon Peres and Walt.

[15] “The first condition for progress will be the complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement”; Israel’s “road map” reservations.

[16] The requirement of democratic election is necessary, given the history and circumstances, to ensure that the government has the political strength and public support it will need to fulfil its obligations.