All Writings
November 13, 2012

Palestinians’ U.N. Bid For Observer State Status: Will It Advance Or Stifle The Peace Process?

There are furious discussions and commentaries being made by top officials from the United States, Europe, Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the wisdom of the Palestinians’ attempt to upgrade their status in the U.N. from an Observer Entity to an Observer State. What the consequences would be for the Palestinians and the peace process resulting from such a move remains to be seen. Regardless of the pros and cons, the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process must be defrosted. Whether or not this is the opportune time for the Palestinians’ bid remains subject to varied speculations. However, one thing must be clear: the status quo is not sustainable and a new dynamic must be introduced to prevent potentially dire consequences for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The efforts to postpone or prevent the Palestinians’ U.N. bid on the premise that such a move will undermine future peace negotiations does not hold much water as the peace negotiations have been frozen since 2010 and the prospect of their resumption is not in sight. Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv, U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, implored the Palestinians to go to the negotiating table: “This is the only way it [the conflict] can be addressed, so I am certain we will continue to look for opportunities to bring the parties together and try to resolve the conflict together, through direct negotiations.” The irony is that there was hardly any progress made to mitigate the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the past three years, and to, “look for opportunities to bring the parties together,” seems hollow, as one has to wonder what opportunities he is talking about when the peace process continues to languish.

The two-state solution has become increasingly more rhetorical and loses significant impetus every day that passes with Israelis and Palestinians speculating, as the creeping one-state “solution” gains more credence. The Israelis have become increasingly more complacent, satisfied to live with the status quo of no peace and no violence while the ground underneath them is gradually shifting toward a one-state solution with ominous consequences for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinians, on the one hand, are counting on the growing international support for their cause while the demographic is shifting in their favor. Current and future Israeli governments will have to choose, sooner rather than later, between a true democracy with a sustainable Jewish national identity or an apartheid state. Many Israelis already consider the policies of the Netanyahu government toward the Palestinians apartheid-like, which are utterly inconsistent with the Jewish moral values that are central to Israel’s very survival.

In a previous article, I supported the Palestinian U.N. bid not only because of the slim prospect of resuming the negotiations “unconditionally” (as Prime Minister Netanyahu demands)—which is a condition in and of itself—but precisely because without changing the dynamic of the conflict there will be no progress to the detriment of both sides. To persuade the Palestinians to hold off on their U.N. bid, they should be provided with an idea as to what they can realistically expect if they were to agree to either postponement or withdrawal of their planned application. The international Quartet’s special envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair, is correct in arguing that, “We have to understand the position the Palestinians find themselves in. It is all about the credibility of the steps toward statehood. It is very much in our interest to offer them [the Palestinians] a way forward that allow us, one way or the other, to get back to the negotiating table.”

Those countries or individuals who are asking the Palestinians to wait until the new Obama Administration gets its bearings, or until after the Israeli election as Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently suggested, are not saying what will in fact happen should the Palestinians decide to wait. The failure of the Obama Administration to come up with any credible plans for the past two years offers no hope to the Palestinians that there will be significant progress in sight. Other than issuing statements in support of a two-state solution and urging both sides to resume negotiations, the Obama Administration left the Israelis and the Palestinians to their own devices. While the Netanyahu government continued to expand the settlements, the Palestinians conditioned the resumption of the negotiations on freezing the very same settlements, making the situation increasingly more intractable. As the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (whose country stands behind Israel) aptly put it a few days ago, “As the whole of the E.U., we share the view that the settlement policy is a hindrance to the peace process.”

That said, the Palestinians must keep in mind that their quest to become an observer state must be promoted as a vehicle to advance the peace process rather than as a tool to threaten or undermine Israel’s international standing. Abbas Zaki, member of the Central Committee of Fatah, was quoted by the Jerusalem Post a few days ago as saying that, “Once the status of a Palestinian state is upgraded, the Palestinians would be able to pursue Israel for ‘war crimes’ in the international criminal court.” He went on to say, “We will go to all U.N. agencies to force the international community to take legal actions against Israel.” This is not the kind of message that the P.A. wants to convey to the outside world, especially if they want to court the support of the E.U.

One other significant point that could undermine the Palestinians’ draft resolution to the UN is the phrase that relates to the delineated borders on which to base the negotiations. In three different passages the document “Affirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their state of Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 borders.” This particular phrasing is especially troubling to many EU members as it could also mean going back to the UN partition plans of 1947, which is a non-starter. A top Palestinian official told me that this could readily be amended to read instead, “the June 4th cease fire line of 1967,” which is universally accepted as the basis for any future peace negotiations.

The E.U. is currently divided between those who object to the P.A. bid (led by Germany), those who tend to support it (led by France), those who seek to delay it (led by Britain) and those who will abstain because they do not wish to irk either the U.S. or Israel. Although the Palestinians can garner the endorsement of at least 115 countries, a significant support of the E.U. matters greatly and such reckless statements by Zaki may well alienate several key European states that would otherwise support the Palestinian bid.

The two-state solution based on the 1967 border of necessity requires an end to Israel’s constant encroachment on Palestinian territory, which is the very foundation of establishing a Palestinian state. The concept of a two-state solution otherwise loses what is left of its meaning or credibility. The P.A. President Abbas is correct in insisting that a freeze on all settlement expansion should precede the resumption of peace negotiations. If this requirement is to be dropped as demanded by the Netanyahu government, however, Netanyahu must also relinquish his condition of “unconditionality” and agree to establish credible rules of engagement, as no serious negotiations can take place on an open-ended basis.

Thus, to persuade the Palestinians to postpone or drop their bid, a credible third party such as the U.S. must come forward with a framework for negotiations. Such a framework must include a mutually-agreed upon agenda with specific conflicting issues to be discussed and a sequence of implementation coupled with a timeframe to instill confidence in the deliberations and allow for concessions to be made by both sides in order to reach an agreement. The duration of the negotiations should be established in advance to persuade the Palestinians that although Israel may continue to expand certain settlements during the negotiating period, it will make little difference in changing the reality on the ground. Ideally, the negotiations should first start by negotiating the borders that will define the future parameters of the Palestinian state.

Whether or not the Palestinians accept such a compromise or decide to proceed with their U.N. bid, they have already managed to change the dynamic of the conflict. The Obama Administration should seize the opportunity to break the impasse by using its leverage on both sides and insist on meaningful peace negotiations that can bring an end to a nearly century-long conflict.