Curb Your Enthusiasm: Israel and Palestine after the UN
Middle East Report N°112
12 Sep 2011
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
In diplomatic lexicon, September 2011 is shorthand for a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, ensuing Israeli and U.S. retaliation and, in fine, a train-wreck. There are legitimate fears about the fallout, but obsession with what will happen at the UN and the disproportionate energy invested in aborting it are getting in the way of clear thinking. This could well produce a cure more lethal than the ailment. Were Palestinian President Abbas to back down, he could decisively discredit his leadership, embolden his foes and trigger unrest among his people; quickly resuming peace talks as an alternative could lead to a breakdown with consequences far graver than anything that effort might induce. The focus should be on shaping a UN outcome that produces tangible gain for the Palestinians in their quest for statehood while providing some reassurance to Israelis, minimises risks of violence or the Palestinian Authority’s collapse and enshrines core principles for a two-state solution. With little time remaining, the burden has shifted to the EU to craft this compromise. It has long sought that role. Now it must live up to it.
The path to the UN has been a tale of collective mismanagement. Palestinian leaders, in a mix of ignorance, internal divisions and brinkmanship, oversold what they could achieve at the world body and now are scrambling to avoid further loss of domestic credibility. Israel, overdramatising the impact of a UN move and determined to stop the Palestinians in their tracks, has threatened all manner of reprisal, from halting the transfer of tax clearance revenues, to decreeing the death of the Oslo agreement, to worse. The U.S. administration, unable to steer events, fed up with both sides, and facing a Congress that will inflict a price for any Palestinian move at the UN, just wants the whole thing to go away. Virtually all its (dwindling) attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past months has been geared toward that goal: from President Obama’s 19 May speech laying out principles guiding the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its last-ditch attempt to produce a Quartet statement that would enable resumption of talks.
The difficulties of coming up with a satisfactory Quartet text aside, the effort is almost bound to backfire. Begin with the objective itself. It is hard to understand how negotiations can help get the parties out of their fix when (failed) negotiations are what led them there in the first place. If there is one thing on which U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials concur, it is that it is virtually impossible in the present context for Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to make substantial progress, let alone reach an agreement. Reasons abound: deep substantive gaps between the two parties; decreasing U.S. authority and enhanced domestic constraints in the run-up to a presidential election; Palestinian divisions; and the weight of the Israeli Right. Restarting talks now to prevent a so-called train wreck in September could well provoke a more dangerous crash when negotiations collapse. It is not enough to take care of September when the rest of the year looms.
Attempts to persuade or pressure Abbas to renounce the UN bid also make short shrift of – or, worse, misread – the realities of Palestinian politics. If he were to postpone it or settle for an essentially symbolic UN resolution and then return to bilateral talks without a settlement freeze, he would likely face a crippling domestic challenge by constituents who have long lost any faith in negotiations and to whom the leadership has built up the UN option for months. Most Palestinians do not strongly support the UN bid; but they would strongly oppose a decision to retract it without suitable compensation. Abbas is said to live in fear of a second “Goldstone episode” – a reference to the attacks he endured when, under U.S. and Israeli pressure, he agreed to delay consideration of the report on the 2008-2009 Gaza War at the UN Human Rights Council. He has every reason to.
Best then to forget the effort to produce a statement by the Quartet – the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN Secretariat – or at least not view it as a substitute for a UN resolution. The least harmful outcome at this point is a UN resolution that is viewed as a victory by the Palestinians but addresses some core Israeli concerns and preserves the option of a two-state settlement. Achieving that result requires some skilful third-party diplomacy. The U.S., which so far has been reluctant to engage on the content of a UN text, has taken itself out of the running. That leaves the Europeans, whose backing the Palestinians are desperate to receive and who therefore can leverage their support.
Several considerations should guide the EU’s endeavour. First, it should persuade the Palestinians to forget about trying to obtain full membership in the UN through the Security Council. That would divide the EU, which very much wants to remain united, and force a U.S. veto that would paint Washington as the slayer of Palestinian aspirations – hardly a desirable reputation at a time of Arab turmoil. Besides, it makes no sense for the Palestinian themselves, who would start their quest for statehood with a setback and the associated loss of momentum.
Secondly, the General Assembly resolution should include core parameters for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. has expressed concern that a UN text might harden the Palestinians’ position by endorsing concepts – such as the borders of 1967 without mention of swaps, or the right of return for refugees – that they would be hard pressed to walk back. What better way to address that fear than to ensure the parameters are balanced? The EU should thus condition its support on the text meeting not only core Palestinian requirements (the 1967 lines with agreed, equal territorial exchanges; Jerusalem as the capital of two states) but also important Israeli ones: the need for negotiations; the necessity that any agreement mark the end of the conflict; and the goal of establishing two states for two peoples (a step that is not tantamount to recognising a Jewish state, an Israeli demand but for now a Palestinian taboo, but that can be understood as pointing in that direction).
Thirdly, the resolution should upgrade the Palestinian status at the General Assembly to non-member observer state. That’s not quite full membership in the UN – Security Council approval is needed for that. But it is second best, a strong signal of support for statehood, and a path toward possible participation in certain international institutions.
The U.S. and Israel have voiced a number of concerns about this option. Each is worth considering in turn. They worry that Palestinians, once the realisation dawns that the UN vote will not change conditions on the ground, might erupt in frustration. The possibility of renewed upheaval cannot be discounted, particularly in light of broader regional events, though it is unlikely to be a result of such disappointment. Palestinians appear to realise that what happens at the UN will not immediately affect their lives; if they choose to rise up, it will be because of the entrenched and seemingly unmoveable realities of occupation, not because of what happens or not as a result of a UN vote. If anything, Abbas’s failure is more likely than his success to provoke unrest over the next months.
A second apprehension involves Palestinian access to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its use as a forum to pursue Israelis. Put aside the incongruity of seeking to immunise any party from the reach of international law at a time when the international tribunal is considered a perfectly appropriate forum for others – Colonel Qaddafi the latest in line. Put aside the myriad obstacles Palestinians would need to overcome before a case could make it before the ICC. And put aside the fact that some Palestinians also could be hauled before the court if they are accused of war crimes – as they were during the last Gaza war. Still, this clearly is a major cause for anxiety and could prompt Israel to initiate severe moves in reprisal. In this respect, the EU, optimally in conjunction with the U.S., should urge restraint and wisdom from all sides in the aftermath of a UN vote – for the Palestinians not to overplay their hand, and for Israel not to overreact.
Indeed, there is the potential for far-reaching financial retaliation by Israel and – compelled by Congress – the U.S. These are not idle threats. A cut off in aid or a halt in revenue transfers could have disastrous impact on the Palestinian Authority (PA); it would be up to the Arab states and the EU to try to make up for the losses. Israelis have evoked other potential harsh measures against the PA as well as intensified settlement construction. It is to be hoped that Jerusalem understands that taking such steps would be scoring an own goal: triggering upheaval, ending Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, jeopardising the PA’s survival and, ultimately, forcing Israel to carry the true burden (and costs) of the occupation.
The possibility of a doomsday scenario is not to be entirely dismissed. It remains within the grasp of Palestinian, Israeli, U.S., and EU policymakers to ensure it is not so. To that end, they will have to show far more wisdom and political savvy in extricating themselves from this mess than they displayed getting into it.
To the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO):
1. Reach agreement with the EU on a UN strategy.
2. Forego applying for full membership in the United Nations at the current time.
3. Promote a resolution in the General Assembly that:
a) enshrines the principles of a two-state solution, including:
i. a border based on the pre-5 June 1967 lines, with agreed, equal land swaps;
ii. Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine;
iii. security arrangements that protect both states’ security, preserve Palestine’s sovereignty, and deal effectively with existing and emerging threats facing Israel; and
iv. a negotiated final settlement that ends the conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples.
b) upgrades Palestine’s status at the UN from observer entity to non-member observer state.
4. Display restraint in the aftermath of a positive UN vote in order not to provoke a harsh Israeli response.
To Member States of the European Union (EU):
5. Reach agreement with the PLO on a resolution along the lines described above.
6. Seek an implicit, U.S.-backed understanding with Palestinians and Israelis to exercise restraint in the aftermath of a UN vote and, in particular;
a) press Israel not to initiate harsh retaliatory measures, notably a halt in tax clearance revenue transfers to the Palestinian Authority; and
b) press the Palestinians not to overplay their hand in international bodies.
7. Seek to make up, together with Arab countries, any shortfall in PA assistance.
To the Government of Israel:
8. Refrain from punitive actions in response to the UN bid, such as withholding tax clearance revenues and a new wave of settlement expansion.
9. Make clear to the U.S. Congress that a cut-off of assistance would harm Israeli interests, in particular by jeopardising the PA’s survival and security cooperation.
10. Exercise maximum restraint, in particular regarding the use of live fire, in dealing with Palestinian protests.
To the Government of the United States:
11. Press Congress to preserve as much Palestinian funding as possible and to maintain security assistance.
12. Press Israel to maintain transfer of tax clearance revenues.
To the Palestinian Authority:
13. Ensure that any protests remain non-violent and avoid steps that could lead to violence.
To Fatah, Hamas and Other Palestinian Factions:
14. Speed national reconciliation and undertake a dialogue on the significance of the UN bid and the role it can play in national strategy.
To the Arab States:
15. Fulfil funding obligations to the PA promptly and, in coordination with the EU, augment aid to compensate for any budgetary shortfall resulting from the UN bid.
Ramallah/Jerusalem/Washington/Brussels, 12 September 2011