In 1716, Francois de Callieres, an emissary of King Louis XVI, made this pithy observation about powers great and small in one of the foundational texts of modern diplomacy, On the Manner of Dealing with Princes:
The blunder of the smallest of sovereigns may indeed cast an apple of discord among all the greatest powers, because there is no state so great which does not find it useful to have relations with the lesser states.
As a remedy, de Callieres insisted that negotiations must be continuous, so that, at the end of a process that is likely to be complex and tortuous, all parties understand that it is in their respective interests to compromise. However, when it comes to the U.S.-led effort to bring peace to the Middle East, de Callieres's insights, long embedded into the norms of modern diplomacy, are being displaced by that "smallest of sovereigns," the Palestinian Authority.
Rather than engage in negotiations which will reinforce the need for compromise, the PA has embarked on a strategy that, in the language of de Callieres, places its "passions" over its "interests." Moreover, the PA is getting away with it, because it has become adept, in its relations with powers great and small, at trading its supposed powerlessness as a form of power.
In less than two decades of existence, the PA has received tens of billions in aid from the European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada and other democracies. When its representatives arrive in foreign capitals, they are greeted with the same protocol shown to politicians and diplomats from other countries. Its often apocalyptic declarations are pored over with suitable anxiety, and whenever its President, Mahmoud Abbas, threatens to resign - which he does frequently - there is a predictable stampede of outsiders imploring him not do so.
It must be gratifying to be treated like a legally recognized state without having the responsibilities of a legally recognized state. Recall the record of successive U.S.-sponsored negotiations. First the PA plays hard to get, then it dismisses serious offers from the Israeli side as not really offers at all. Then it makes threats: to unilaterally cancel security arrangements with Israel , or even to dissolve itself, with the deliberate goal of triggering regional instability.
The key here is how the PA plays the image of powerlessness to its advantage. Take its current campaign to secure, outside the framework of negotiations, international recognition of a Palestinian state in those territories that came under Israeli control following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In Latin America, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have agreed to do exactly that, thereby aiding the Palestinian leadership in its quest to force the hand of the United States by driving this issue into the chamber of the United Nations Security Council.
Never mind that such a policy is legally and politically inchoate. It contradicts two previous documents which already contradicted each other: the Palestinian Declaration of Independence at Algiers in 1988, which deliberately didn't specify the borders of a Palestinian state, and the Oslo Accords of 1993, signed with Israel, which established the PA. The legal scholar Natan Lerner has written that "what has not been established cannot be recognized," but the PA and its international supporters are determined to break with precedent.
The PA knows that it can count on the pro-Palestinian instincts of many Latin American, Asian and African states, assiduously groomed by the PLO during the 1970s. Yet there's another factor, as a communications strategist who's worked for the Israeli and other foreign governments explained to me in a recent conversation. "It's hard to convince the outside world," he said, "why what the PA is doing is wrong."
My interlocutor observed that since the end of the Cold War, 33 new countries have come into existence, most of them emerging from former communist uberstates like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. "These states have achieved independence in super-fast fashion, so the snail's pace of the Palestinian effort stands out and wins sympathy," he said.
Negotiations would have resulted in a Palestinian state as much as a decade ago, but the unwillingess of Palestinian leaders - whether nationalist or Islamist or some combination thereof - to compromise on final status issues, in particular the so-called 'right of return,' habitually confounds anything more than an interim agreement.
Now Europe is the PA's next target in its bid to win recognition of statehood. Rather typically, if the European answer is not an outright 'yes,' neither is it a full-throated 'no.'
This is a shame, because what the PA is doing is ultimately self-defeating.
At best, the Palestinians will have an entity whose legal status is the topic of constant dispute, with little more than symbolic meaning. If PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's program of institution-building is to culminate successfully by his August 2011 deadline, what's needed is a real state, not a T-shirt slogan. And that can only happen through an agreement with Israel.
Yet the independence campaign means that Israel has no reason to trust the PA now - and therefore no reason to engage with anything other than extreme caution. How can Israel risk accepting a security package from the Obama Administration when it is almost certain, a few months down the line, that the Palestinians will find another cause to abandon talks and blame Israel for the collapse? Israelis know that they are perceived widely, and unfairly, as hardliners - they don't want to be seen as ingrates too.
To break the deadlock, the PA needs to follow the advice of de Callieres, and swap out passion for interest. Ultimately, it has a choice: either a Palestinian state or a Palestinian cause. There will be no shortage of Latin American populists and European celebrities lining up to endorse the latter. That's just one of many reasons why it would be wise for the PA to concentrate on the former and commit itself to reaching agreement with the one state that can make Palestine a reality: Israel.