Paul Greenberg

Why shouldn't the United Nations recognize an Arab state of Palestine alongside the Jewish one called Israel? It wouldn't be the first time. On November 29, 1947, the UN's General Assembly voted 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, to partition the disputed territory then called Palestine into two states whose people were going to live happily ever afterward.

Fat lot of good it did.

Riots erupted throughout the over-Promised Land as soon as the vote was recorded. The Arab Higher Committee for Palestine declared it would "fight for every inch" of old Palestine. The learned sages of Al-Azhar University in Cairo declared jihad against the infidels. (The term would become familiar to Americans after September 11, 2001).

Arab militias, aka gangs, began attacking Jewish settlements all across the Galilee. The British, who were supposed to keep the peace as the mandatory authority in Palestine, declared themselves unable to stop the assaults; they had all they could do to disarm the Jews. They wound up turning over their bases in the country to the Arab fighters streaming across the border from what was then Trans-Jordan. ("I will have the pleasure and honor to save Palestine." --King Abdullah I, April 26, 1948.) Suspected of making peace with the Jews, the king would be assassinated by the inevitable fanatic three years later. The UN, to no one's surprise, would prove as impotent then as it is now. It still passes plenty of resolutions; only resolve is lacking.

In 1947, the American president who was shifting back and forth on the Palestine question, now known as the Middle East conflict, was Harry Truman. He would wind up recognizing the Jewish state once it was declared. By then it was a presidential election year, and one of his political advisers (a then young Clark Clifford) kept urging Mr. Truman to support the idea of a Jewish state if he intended to carry New York in the fall.

In 2011, the American president shifting back and forth is Barack Obama. Appearing before the United Nations this past week, he was no longer emphasizing the need for Israel to negotiate on the basis of its vulnerable pre-1967 borders, which were essentially the 1949 armistice lines. Instead, he shifted his emphasis to urging direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, which the Israelis very much want to resume.

It's a familiar pattern: The closer a presidential election year gets, the closer an American president gets to the Israeli position. Especially if the president's party has just lost a congressional election in a largely Jewish district of New York, as Barack Obama's just did. It would be unfair to say that this president puts his vaguely leftish ideology first when it comes to making important decisions. It's clear, as in this case, that he puts winning re-election first. I'm not sure which is worse.

Meanwhile, all rites must be observed in full at the United Nations. Speeches must be made, votes recorded, and separate but equal demonstrations held. Politicians and pundits must make their Terribly Serious statements while the world stifles a yawn. Somebody really ought to put up a sign outside the UN's faceless building on the East Side whenever this show is revived:

UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY

New International Cast

Same Classic Script

This is where some of us came in. All the parties to the charade will now assert they're dedicated to pursuing a "just and lasting peace," to use the inevitable phrase. Some may even believe it. Nothing enhances a good performance like sincerity.

There's really not much suspense left in this script. By now everybody must know what an eventual peace in the Mideast would look like. The terms have been worked out at international conference after international conference. Why not just brush off the last, rejected draft of the Camp David agreement a decade ago, back in 2000, if anybody can find it, and finally sign the thing? If not, the same terms can be spelled out again:

Two states, one Jewish and one Arab, living side by side. (Instead of the usual arrangement, which bears entirely too close a resemblance to dying side by side.)

Land transfers that would leave the larger Jewish settlements in place on the West Bank while adding about the same number of dunams to the Palestinian state.

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state with its capital at Jerusalem, which would also house the capital of a new Arab state, the way Vatican City is part of Rome. Just as Muslim authorities now administer the Temple Mount while Jews pray at the Western Wall below it. At least when they're not being stoned.

Throw in a final settlement of all refugee claims, too, both those of Jews expelled from Arab countries and Arabs who fled Israel during various wars. For details, consult Minutes, Camp David, 2000. Where there's a will, there's a treaty, lacking only signatures. Yasser Arafat backed out at the last minute, fearing he would meet the same fate as Abdullah I.

There's light at the end of this tunnel. But there's no Arab leader willing to enter it, lest he never get out alive. How many peacemakers -- Jewish, Arab and other -- have been assassinated by now in the Middle East? Hope for peace is reborn every few years, or centuries, but the violent bear it away. The list of their victims stretches back from Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Abdullah I under the British all the way back to Gedaliah ben Ahikam under the Babylonians.

In order to negotiate a two-state solution, both states would need to be represented. But who represents the proto-state of Palestine in this latest round of talk and only talk of peace? Mahmoud Abbas can speak for only half a Palestinian state at best; Hamas controls the other half. Which of the two -- Hamas or the Palestinian "Authority" -- is the rump parliament? Both, one suspects, for neither can claim an unchallenged legitimacy.

But the show must go on in New York. By all means, let the diplomats keep dithering. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Winston Churchill once observed. But let there be no illusions. This is a remake of a rather unconvincing fantasy.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.