Khaled Elgindy. Foreign Affairs. Volume 90, Issue 5. September/October 2011.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), plans to call on the United Nations in September to recognize a Palestinian state and admit it as a full member of the organization. This strategy marks a dramatic shift in the Palestinians’ approach to the conflict with Israel: they are not seeking to revive the moribund peace process; they are seeking to bypass it altogether.
Following the collapse of direct negotiations last fall, Abbas and his Fatah-dominated leadership launched an aggressive diplomatic campaign to secure broad international recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders as a prelude to applying for formal UN membership this fall. If the Palestinian bid to get full UN membership in September is defeated in the UN Security Council-a U.S. veto is all but assured-the pa says it is prepared to take the matter to the General Assembly. Initially, the plan was to seek a two-thirds majority vote there to obtain a nonbinding resolution under the “Uniting for Peace” procedure, which allows the General Assembly to act when a lack of unanimity on the Security Council prevents it from fulfilling its “primary responsibility” of maintaining “international peace and security.” The pa has since backed away from this option and is now planning to seek a simple majority in the General Assembly, which would allow Palestine to be recognized as a “nonmember state” of the UN, alongside Kosovo, Taiwan, and Vatican City.
The Palestinians’ UN strategy has been buttressed by two ongoing developments, both of which have now become essential to its success. The first is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s so-called state-building plan, which he launched in August 2009 with the aim of laying the institutional foundations of a future Palestinian state within two years. Although it was not envisaged as a diplomatic initiative, the plan has given Abbas certain strategic advantages, including an internationally endorsed deadline and specific criteria for statehood. The second, more crucial precondition for Palestinian statehood is national unity. Progress toward this has already been achieved through a reconciliation agreement signed in early May that was designed to formally end a debilitating four-year split between Fatah and Hamas. The deal has yet to be finalized, let alone implemented, and it has provoked strong opposition from Israel and raised serious concerns in Washington. But without a unified polity, the Palestinians’ bid for statehood will not be credible.
Meanwhile, Abbas’ UN strategy threatens to put the Palestinian leadership on a political and diplomatic collision course with Israel, the United States, and perhaps the broader international community. Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed the outcome of any UN vote as “meaningless,” his government has been preparing for what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called “an impending diplomatic tsunami.” U.S. President Barack Obama has warned the Palestinians that “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.” The United States, along with key European and other powers, insists that a Palestinian state will be created only through direct negotiations.
Yet the move does not merit a direct confrontation. In going to the UN, the Palestinians are seeking not to obtain statehood but to gain full UN membership as an existing state. Since last year, some 120 countries have recognized a “state of Palestine” drawn along the 1967 borders. Meanwhile, Abbas, other Palestinian leaders, and various international legal experts have argued that Palestine already is a state because it meets the four criteria for statehood prescribed by international law: it has a permanent population (Palestinians), a specific territory (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as defined by the 1967 lines), a government (the pa), and the ability to enter into relations with other countries (through the PLO). In any event, UN membership requires the approval of the Security Council, and the United States will surely veto the Palestinians’ bid. Thus, Abbas’ gesture is largely symbolic.
This is not to say that it is an empty gesture, however, as the Palestinians are also eyeing some concrete benefits. They hope to pressure Israel and the United States to engage in more equitable negotiations, whether these take place before, after, or instead of the UN vote. This is a central objective for Abbas and the Fatah-dominated PLO leadership, because their political survival hinges in no small measure on both credible peace negotiations and a two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
This strategy did not come about in a vacuum or overnight. Its roots lie in the belief, long held by ordinary Palestinians and more recently adopted by the Abbas leadership, that two decades of “peace processing” have failed to realize Palestinian national aspirations and have helped prolong and deepen Israel’s occupation while weakening Palestinian political institutions. Twenty years after the launch of face-to- face talks between Israel and the PLO, the West Bank is more cantonized, Gaza’s population is poorer and more besieged, and Israeli settlers are more numerous and bolder than ever.
The decision by Abbas and Fatah to resort to a UN bid for statehood, as well as the decision to pursue a reconciliation agreement with their political rival, Hamas, was born of profound despair. Two mutually reinforcing trends, the failure of U.S.-led mediation efforts and Fatah’s own increasingly precarious domestic political position, have led Palestinian leaders to conclude that although they have done everything that was asked of them-from security and institution building to continued peace talks-the United States and its international partners have failed to live up to their end of the bargain. The Palestinians’ disenchantment has been in the making for many years, but it has accelerated considerably under the Obama administration.
The idea of seeking a UN Security Council resolution recognizing a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, was floated as early as November 2009. Obama seemed sympathetic at first, but Abbas, who could not afford another round of failed peace talks, spent the next 18 months avoiding U.S. entreaties to resume direct negotiations. He wanted clear terms of reference and a commitment from Israel that it would halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank. After a time, weakened to the point of paralysis, he agreed to engage only in indirect “proximity” talks. Then, in September 2010, relenting to U.S. pressure, he agreed to direct talks.
But soon after that, two decisive events convinced Abbas and Fatah that they needed to radically change course. The first was the rapid collapse of the September 2010 talks after Washington failed to secure even a partial moratorium on settlement construction from Israel. The Obama administration’s reluctance to use its substantial leverage with Israel to secure a construction freeze dashed any remaining hopes among Palestinians that Obama might do better than his predecessors. As if to confirm their disappointment, in February 2011 the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. The vote was a sort of dry run for the UN vote in September, and for Abbas, the U.S. veto was the clearest indication yet of both the Obama administration’s unwillingness to pressure Israel on even matters of long-standing U.S. policy and its inability to appreciate Palestinian political needs. A month later, Abbas’ foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, announced, “The current peace process, as it has been conducted so far, is over.”
The second clarifying moment for the Palestinian leadership occurred at the onset of the Arab Spring, following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. The loss of Mubarak, the pa’s most powerful Arab ally and chief political patron, was especially jarring for Abbas. Even before the Arab uprisings, senior Palestinian officials had privately acknowledged that the pa’s legitimacy was “hanging by a thread”: the pa’s parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, has not met since 2007, and Abbas, whose term technically expired in January 2009, has been ruling largely by decree. In January of this year, after al Jazeera and The Guardian released hundreds of leaked documents detailing controversial concessions by the PLO to Israel, the slow seepage of the Palestinian leadership’s legitimacy became a full-blown hemorrhage. Amid the wave of popular protests sweeping the region, it was forced to reassess its political priorities. It could no longer ignore public opinion.
Chief among the Palestinian people’s demands was national reconciliation, which seemed to them a prerequisite to ending the Israeli occupation. Young Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza took to the streets calling for an end to the political division between Fatah and Hamas, a self-inflicted schism that had become a source of intense collective shame. (The pa is mainly an administrative body, whereas the PLO, of which Fatah is the dominant faction, is recognized internationally as the legal and diplomatic representative of the Palestinian people-which is the reason that Hamas’ exclusion from the PLO has persistently undermined the PLO’s claim that it represents all Palestinians.) With little prospect of a credible negotiation process with Israel and the winds of change blowing at his back, Abbas and Fatah saw no choice but to end their four-year feud with Hamas, even if doing so meant that the U.S. Congress would likely cut aid to the pa and the government would probably face an international boycott. It was a necessary move. The reconciliation agreement may not have been in the cards when Abbas first decided to go to the UN, but it has helped eliminate another hurdle to his bid: a still-divided Palestinian polity would not have been a credible candidate for statehood.
Gambit or Gamble?
Some characterize the Palestinians’ UN bid as an attempt to achieve statehood unilaterally or to delegitimize Israel. It is neither. In fact, it is not even the Palestinian leadership’s preferred course of action. Abbas and Fatah would much rather engage in a credible negotiation process and avoid a power-sharing arrangement with Hamas. Unlike Hamas, whose street credibility is based on resistance, Fatah’s credibility derives from the promise of bringing about change through peace negotiations.
Having borne the brunt of repeated failures in the peace process, the pa’s primary aim now is to regain some badly needed political leverage, mainly by forcing a shift in the cost-benefit calculations of Israel and the United States. Palestine’s admission into the UN would, in Abbas’ view, transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a matter of one UN member state violating the sovereign rights of another. That could give the Palestinians access to various international forums and mechanisms, such as the UN’s human rights bodies, the International Court of Justice, and even the International Criminal Court, and offer them new avenues to seek redress. Even though UN membership is unlikely in the near term, Abbas hopes that further internationalizing the conflict will broaden the Palestinians’ international support base and reaffirm the primacy of international norms, particularly their claim to the 1967 lines as the basis for a Palestinian state. Several western European states, such as France and Spain, have indicated that they might support the Palestinians’ UN bid if peace negotiations have not resumed by September. Such support would dramatically increase the political value of even a nonbinding resolution by the General Assembly.
Abbas’ UN strategy also dovetails neatly with Fayyad’s state-building plan. Fayyad’s proposal has given Abbas two strategic advantages. The first is to have established a crucial two-year deadline for statehood, a deadline that has since been officially endorsed by the Quartet (the European Union, the UN, the United States, and Russia) and is conveniently set to expire on the eve of the vote in the UN General Assembly in September. More important, the successful completion of the plan would help eliminate Israeli, U.S., and international pretexts for not moving forward on the diplomatic track and overcome the kind of stonewalling that the pa experienced during the difficult days of the al Aqsa intifada, when Israel and the United States preconditioned negotiations on security. A September 2010 report by the World Bank effectively certified the pa’s progress on this front, finding it “well positioned to establish a state at any time in the near future.” That the criteria applied to make that determination were based largely on political considerations mattered little to either Abbas or his Western backers. So long as the situation remained calm and the pa was seen as opposing terrorism, the international community was prepared to overlook fundamental deficiencies, such as the absence of a functioning legislature or of formal mechanisms of accountability. That way, no formal obstacle would stand in the way of full Palestinian statehood, except the Israeli occupation.
Since the Arab Spring, Abbas has also come to see national unity as the surest, and perhaps the only, way to shore up the pa’s sagging legitimacy. Reconciliation would give him a means of both containing Hamas (once inside the political process, he hopes, the group will do less damage than it could when it was outside) and enhancing his negotiating position (like his American and Israeli counterparts, he could invoke public opinion to resist making unpopular compromises). Moreover, when Abbas agreed to the reconciliation deal, he structured it in a way that created the fewest possible obstacles to future peace negotiations with Israel. As head of the PLO, he would retain the negotiations portfolio, and if the proposed consensus government came to be, he would be working with nonfactional technocrats and no members of Hamas. The matter of how, or when, Hamas might join the PLO, was put off indefinitely.
Thus, far from negating the possibility of peace negotiations, the Palestinians’ UN gambit is a strategy aimed at strengthening their negotiating posture vis-à-vis Israel and the United States while improving the domestic standing of Abbas and his colleagues. Its goal is more to level the playing field than to change the game itself. Palestinian leaders from Abbas on down repeatedly refer to the UN option as a measure of last resort and seldom mention it without stipulating their preference for direct bilateral negotiations with Israel. They have even hinted at the possibility of resuming talks and abandoning their UN bid in return for something less than their usual preconditions-namely, either that Israel refrain from “creating new facts on the ground” (a looser standard than requiring a full settlement freeze) or the principles that Obama laid out in his May 19 speech (which are at best only partial terms of reference).
“Give Me Statehood, or Give Me Death!”
THE REAL internal struggle ahead for the Palestinian leadership will come not from Fatah’s impatient young guard, or even from Hamas, but rather from a whole new generation that wants to upend the entire old order. Although the PLO may have once represented the “revolution,” in the newly emerging fault lines of the Arab Spring, it is very much in the camp of old-guard Arab regimes. A full-blown Palestinian Spring has not yet come, but recent protests-those of March 15,May 15, and June 5, along with the demonstrations held regularly in Silwan, Naalin, Nabi Saleh, and other communities opposing the encroachment of Israeli settlements and the separation barrier-are an indication of what the future may hold. If Palestinians mobilize on an even larger scale in the future, they are as likely to direct their anger at their leaders as at Israel. Unlike Abbas and Fatah, they are not wedded to the twostate solution, and they are certainly not wedded to the peace process. Like their counterparts in other Arab countries, they are more loyal to principles and ideals than to ideological and factional affiliations; they seek not statehood but freedom, not negotiations but rights. They want to redefine the Palestinian national movement and forge a new national consensus that goes beyond the factional, the parochial, and the ideological.
The Palestinian leadership’s UN bid is partly a response to this threat, too. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, offered this blunt rationale for it: “We’re doing this to preserve the two-state solution … so that our people won’t say we failed.” A UN vote will not end the occupation of Israel or remove the settlements. But as Erekat intimated, the main point is to preserve the option of a two-state solution, which is rapidly being foreclosed by ever-expanding Israeli settlements and other “facts on the ground” (such as checkpoints, restrictions on movement, and land confiscation), until Israel and the United States can pursue it more seriously. And since the two-state solution is inextricably linked to the current Palestinian leaders’ political relevance, this is also a way for them to ensure their own survival.
These motivations may explain why neither Abbas nor other Fatah leaders are eager to reform the PLO: allowing Hamas and other factions to join the umbrella group would end their monopoly on power. It may also explain why they have chosen their current UN strategy rather than other options that might have given them as much, if not more, leverage over Israel and the United States. Had such leverage been their only goal, they could have exploited several easy opportunities, most obviously the release in 2009 of the Goldstone report, which was the result of a un-commissioned investigation into war crimes that Israel allegedly committed during the Gaza war in the winter of 2008-9, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign designed to isolate and punish Israel culturally, economically, and politically. But when the Goldstone report came up for review before the UN Human Rights Council in October 2009, Abbas succumbed to Israeli, U.S., and international pressure to postpone a vote endorsing it, even though similar pressure had failed to make him back down before. Likewise, the pa has sought to distance itself from the growing bds movement, going to great lengths, for example, to distinguish its own limited calls to boycott companies operating in Israeli settlements from the much broader cultural, economic, and political boycott advocated by the movement. The Palestinian leadership has never seriously pursued rights-based strategies of this kind, except in the most opportunistic and tactical way, largely because these are incompatible with a negotiated two-state solution: Palestinian leaders cannot very well sit down and negotiate with people they boycott or seek to have prosecuted as war criminals. In much the same way, the UN bid cannot be said to be driven by a desire to delegitimize Israel. For a leadership that believes its political future depends on a negotiated two-state solution, that approach would be self-defeating, if not self-negating.
A Game of Chicken
The Palestinians are determined to press ahead with their membership application at the UN and to seek a General Assembly resolution supporting their claim to a state drawn along the 1967 borders. Whether either of these initiatives will succeed, and within what timeframe-it could take months, or even years, for the Security Council to vote on the question-is unclear. But it seems increasingly unlikely that the Palestinians will ever return to the old peace process. As desperate as they may appear, they are not yet suicidal. And so barring some new groundbreaking diplomatic initiative by the United States, which seemed increasingly unlikely at the time of this writing, in July, the Palestinians have every reason to make good on their promise to take the statehood issue to the UN. The Quartet failed to arrive at a consensus in time to prevent the Palestinians from submitting their formal application to the UN secretary-general by July 15.
Whether the UN bid is a success, pursuing it has already borne fruit. For the first time in many years, it is the Palestinians, rather than the Americans or the Israelis, who have set the agenda. Obama probably would not have declared that the 1967 lines should define the borders of Israel and Palestine, as he did earlier this year, if the Palestinians had not threatened to go to the UN. The UN bid has also played well back home, helping stanch the pa’s hemorrhaging legitimacy, if only temporarily. And the Palestinians have also won strong Arab support, including official backing from the Arab League, Egypt’s transitional government, and Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, the plan entails some serious risks. It remains unclear how the Palestinians intend to proceed after the UN vote, particularly in the not unlikely event that it is defeated. Abbas and his close advisers have laid out a series of possible scenarios: an international trusteeship over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel’s resumption of its full responsibilities as an occupying power, the dissolution of the pa, and others. But with neither the nature nor the sequence of these options fully explained, these ideas have done little more than expose the lack of a coherent plan and the lack of cohesiveness within the Palestinian leadership.
Another substantial risk for the Palestinians is alienating Israel and the United States, both of which have seemed determined to defeat their UN bid even before it gets to a vote and might punish the Palestinians if the vote does take place. The U.S. Congress has already said that it will cut off U.S. financial assistance to the pa if either the UN bid or the Palestinian reconciliation agreement goes through. And various Israeli officials have threatened to annex parts of the West Bank or cancel existing agreements with the PLO. Israel might also try to derail the Fatah-Hamas unity deal by, for example, provoking Hamas into a new military confrontation. Although Palestinian leaders are mindful of these risks, they have not articulated how they plan to overcome Israeli and U.S. opposition or avoid a possible resurgence in violence should the UN measure fail.
The bid also risks unduly raising the expectations of the Palestinian people. Should it fail or be defeated, the credibility of the pa and the PLO at home would be undercut. With negotiations with Israel already at a dead end, many Palestinians might conclude that no peaceful options remain. Frustration might be channeled into mass mobilizations, such as those seen throughout the Arab world this year, or they might take on the more violent forms prevalent during the previous decade. Whether this frustration targets Palestinian leaders or Israel will depend on the extent to which Palestinians believe that their leaders are acting on behalf of Palestinian national interests rather than Israeli, U.S., or Western wishes. To help mitigate this risk, Abbas and his colleagues will need to ensure that they secure something substantive if they do agree to abandon their UN bid.
This game of chicken presents some serious risks for Israel and the United States as well. Defeating a UN vote on Palestinian statehood might represent a kind of victory for both countries in the short term, but the long-term consequences could prove far more costly for them than for the Palestinians. Having identified Palestinian statehood as a vital national security interest, Washington would again be in the awkward position of voting down its own stated policy if it actively worked to prevent or defeat the UN vote, particularly at such a sensitive moment in the history of the Middle East. And that might further undermine its international standing. Israel would likely face even greater international isolation than it does now, particularly if it carried through with its threats to cancel previous accords or unilaterally annex all or parts of the West Bank. Either move could backfire by hastening the pa’s collapse, which would probably mean the end of the two-state solution and with it the end of any hope that Israel could be both Jewish and democratic.
Although the United States may have legitimate concerns over key elements of this Palestinian strategy, it stands to gain little from a direct diplomatic confrontation with the Palestinian leadership. This is partly because there may be little it can do to prevent there being some vote at the UN, whether in the Security Council or the General Assembly. But more important, defeating the measure without offering an alternative course of action, other than a return to the status quo, could so undermine the already shaky Palestinian leadership as to accelerate its eventual demise-and with it, the demise of the twostate solution itself.
Thus, rather than viewing the Palestinians’ UN bid and the Fatah- Hamas unity deal as threats to a moribund peace process, the United States should see them as an opportunity to reset a severely outdated approach to resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It should seek to preempt the UN vote by working with other key international actors-including the current members of the Quartet; regional stakeholders, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; and possibly other states-to develop a bold, new initiative that spells out the requirements for a comprehensive resolution to the conflict (the outlines of which are already known) and then marshaling broad international support for it. This initiative should spell out the endgame by establishing clear and unequivocal parameters for resolving all of the conflict’s core issues. And it should create a new framework for overseeing a credible negotiation process that is based on internationally accepted negotiating terms and is designed to end the Israeli occupation and create a Palestinian state within a firmly established timeframe. Short of this kind of bold initiative, even if the U.S. government does convince the Palestinians to abandon their UN bid, it will only have succeeded in delaying, rather than preventing, a more serious crisis down the road.