How Sovereign a State?

(Originally published in April, 2010)

Summary Overview

Since the 1980s the Palestine Liberation Organization has aimed for a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. Drawing on past Palestinian negotiating experience and the situation on the ground, this Policy Brief identifies some of the areas relating to sovereignty (e.g. armaments, alliances, crossings, borders, Israeli military posts in the West Bank) that Israel and the PLO would have to negotiate in the event that serious talks aimed at reaching a peace treaty are held. It develops a scenario that (1) compares a “moderate” Israeli position to a Palestinian stance guided by the objective of achieving a sovereign Palestinian state and (2) discusses whether the positions of the two sides are bridgeable. The aim of the exercise is to warn against pitfalls and to recommend positions and approaches, even with the knowledge that serious negotiations may not begin soon. The analysis reveals how unlikely it is that a truly sovereign Palestinian state can come about as a result of negotiations in the present circumstances.

Negotiations and Sovereignty

Sovereignty can be defined as a government’s exclusive control over a territory and a people, including a monopoly over the use of force. Yet in the real world, every state is bound by constraints originating in other states. Even a superpower such as the United States is subject to external – albeit minimal – constraints. States sometimes negotiate these constraints within the framework of a treaty under which they may accept what they consider to be reasonable restrictions on their sovereignty. In the realm of security, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is a good example of agreed limitations by non-nuclear countries.

1. Armaments
Scenario positions

  • Israeli position: a demilitarized Palestinian state
  • Palestinian position: self-defense capabilities

The Palestinian side anticipated from the start that some restrictions would be placed on sovereignty that could be considered reasonable, for example restrictions on certain types of armaments, on an air force or submarines. Arguably, the Palestinians could accept such restrictions.1 However, the state would need certain types of armaments for self-defense and for border and coastline control. In addition, if it is established through negotiations and an official peace treaty, the State of Palestine would be bound by an obligation to maintain law and order within its territory (i.e., to prevent the formation of non-governmental armed groups and the violation of its own borders and those of its neighbors). Yet if Israel’s concept is to prevent the possession by the Palestinian security services of any weapon capable of reaching its coastal urban centers and airport, then no agreement would be possible on the matter.