With Secretary of State Tony Blinken on his latest whirlwind tour of the Middle East this week, U.S. diplomatic efforts are in full swing to shape the post-October 7 regional order. The Biden administration is attempting to pull off a complicated diplomatic maneuver that results in an eventual two-state outcome and Israel-Saudi normalization, though which of these is supposed to lead to the other depends on who you ask. But for any of this to happen, a number of prior dominoes need to fall. There is no prospect for an Israel-Palestinian deal or an Israel-Saudi deal without a plan for the day after in Gaza, no way to put a plan in place while fighting is still going on in Gaza, and no prospect to end the fighting in Gaza while there are Israeli hostages still being held captive by Hamas. Not only is this entire plan enormously ambitious, it is enormously complex.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 6, 2024

Assuming that a hostage deal that comes with a lengthy ceasefire is in the offing, the next piece—if public Saudi statements can be believed—are irreversible steps that create a pathway toward a Palestinian state, which will allow Saudi Arabia to move toward normalization with Israel. As with everything, the devil is in the details, and that makes it critical to define what these ephemeral irreversible steps will be. One idea that is being bandied about is recognition of a Palestinian state, with the details of what that state will look like to be determined later. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron raised the possibility of such a step and Blinken asked for a State Department review of Palestinian statehood recognition as an option.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron

In the universe of irreversible steps, recognizing a Palestinian state appears to be as irreversible as it gets. If the U.S. and other European states recognize Palestine and it is admitted to the U.N. as a full member state, many would view that as the fulfillment of the two-state vision. It would mark one of the most improbable turn of events in recent geopolitics, taking a two-state outcome that has been widely derided as no longer viable and that has been cast aside by much of the left in favor of confederation or a rights-based approach and making it a reality in the span of a few short months. In addition, in the world of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seemingly irreversible steps on the ground turn out to be less irreversible than assumed; to wit, October 7 has left the future of the Gaza disengagement in doubt, while the Oslo distinctions in the West Bank between Areas A, B, and C exist now on paper but barely in practice. The advantage to international recognition of Palestinian statehood is that it would be diffuse, requiring many actors to all reverse it in tandem in unprecedented fashion.

Nevertheless, recognizing a Palestinian state is the wrong approach if the Biden administration is searching for an irreversible pathway to a two-state outcome. For starters, pushing for a Palestinian statehood declaration now badly misreads the mood among Israelis. The trauma of October 7 is not yet lingering in Israel, but is rather still front and center. Even to left-wing Israelis who have supported two states for decades, speaking now about Palestinian statehood comes off as madness. It does not take into account Israelis’ real and new sense of insecurity, feels to them like a punitive measure on top of the massacre that they just suffered, and is perceived as a confirmation to Palestinians that violence and terrorism will be rewarded rather than punished. The advantage that the U.S. has of being outside the currently impenetrable Israeli bubble is one of seeing the wider picture and appreciating that a Palestinian state remains necessary, not only for Palestinians but for Israel’s own future as a Jewish and democratic state. But that does not mean that now is the time to impose one on traumatized and unwilling Israelis, since it risks creating a backlash that will take years, if not decades, to dissipate.

The bigger problem with recognizing a Palestinian state without first working out the details with both parties of what that state will look like is that it will end up being a hollow gesture that also discredits two states with Palestinians. If the world recognizes a Palestinian state tomorrow, many in the international community will rejoice, as will many Palestinian Authority officials. Ordinary Palestinians, however, will wake up in a place that still has no borders, where they still have little control over the flow of people and goods, where the IDF still makes raids into Palestinian cities at will, and where they still do not have basic law and order. Not only will their daily lives not change, but they won’t feel any greater measures of sovereignty or independence. They will have a Palestinian state that is a legal fiction and that brings them no real benefits. Recognition of Palestinian statehood with nothing behind it will pave the way for a Saudi normalization deal through a rhetorical sleight of hand, and will allow Bibi Netanyahu to continue his policy of not permitting the creation of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian entity. But what it won’t do is provide a path to a viable two-state outcome or increase support for two states among Palestinians.

A rally in Toronto against Israel's military campaign in Gaza, October 21, 2023

If Biden wants to do something meaningful, he should push for steps that will improve Palestinians’ daily lives and also move them closer toward sovereignty, and insist on measures significant enough that will give the Saudis cover to start down the normalization path. A non-exhaustive list of ideas includes asking Israel to renounce any future claims over the 95% of the West Bank that lies outside the five major settlement blocs along the Green Line but not withdrawing from any territory in the absence of negotiations, eliminating Area B (where there are no Israelis) and converting it all to Area A as a way of giving Palestinians more control over what is already territory on which they exclusively live, dismantling illegal outposts, and eliminating the various restrictions on Palestinian trade with countries that are not part of the Paris Protocol. It should also involve implementing a plan for Gaza that hands over parts of security and governance to the PA, with the aim of increasing PA responsibilities over time if it meets basic benchmarks and eventually leading to PA rule in Gaza. While none of these are irreversible in an ironclad way, they would provide a pathway toward two states in a way that Palestinians would actually feel.

Recognizing a Palestinian state is a shiny object that seems like a bold move. But it will backfire with Israelis, will backfire with Palestinians, and will make a two-state outcome more rather than less remote. While the sentiment behind it is well-intentioned, there are better ways to fulfill the imperative of creating a pathway towards Palestinian statehood that will unlock the Biden administration’s larger plans for the region.