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Showdown on Palestinian Statehood

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
September 23, 2011

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Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas took his bid for Palestinian statehood to the UN today, formally handing the request for UN membership to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a speech to the General Assembly. Calling for a "Palestinian spring," Abbas laid out Palestinian grievances against what he called Israel's "colonial-military occupation," calling for negotiations based on 1967 borders, an end to settlement expansion, and other parameters. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu countered with a speech agreeing that a Palestinian state is needed, but pushed for "serious peace negotiations" and forcefully argued the imperatives of Israel's security. "Palestinians should first make peace with Israel, then have a state," he said.

Abbas's bid is likely doomed in the Security Council (CNN), where the United States has promised to veto it. After weeks of last-minute efforts to forestall a showdown, the Middle East Quartet--the United States, Russia, the EU, and UN--released a statement (ForeignPolicy) late Friday calling for the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians within one month. Both sides would present detailed proposals within three months, and negotiations would be completed by end of 2012.

Many experts believe that even a General Assembly vote to upgrade Palestinian Authority status would strengthen the Palestinians' hand in any future negotiations, and some argue that Abbas's play is a necessary one (NationalInterest). But there are also serious risks for the Palestinians. Israel has threatened to nullify the 1993 Oslo Accords, which stipulate that neither side can unilaterally change the status of the West Bank. The bid also aggravates relations with the United States, which could threaten to withdraw roughly $500 million in annual funding to the Palestinian Authority. A U.S. veto of the Palestinian statehood bid also would be met with anger throughout the Arab world.

Finally, it puts Abbas at odds with the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which opposes the membership bid as well as any recognition of Israel or compromise on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. However, Abbas believes that the risk is worth it (NYT) because a vote for statehood would mean that "Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another."

This week's events at the UN underscore, for some, the waning U.S. influence in the Middle East (ForeignPolicy). "The United States is facing the prospect of having to share, or even cede, its decades-long role as the architect of Middle East peacemaking," write Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times. The White House spent too much time working to get Israel to freeze settlement-building instead of devising "the parameters of a framework of negotiations that would make it very difficult for both sides to say 'no' to moving forward," says Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. envoy to Israel and Syria.

Many argue that after years of diplomatic stalemate on the statehood question, Abbas's maneuver creates a welcome sense of urgency. "The coming UN showdown--coupled with the changes sweeping the Middle East--could spur the paradigm shift that is needed for peace" (ForeignAffairs), writes Alvaro de Soto, former UN coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. If Palestinians can remain peaceful following a Security Council veto by the United States or a successful General Assembly vote, "it will put a great deal of pressure on Israel and the international community to stop ignoring the issue" of statehood, writes Carnegie Endowment's Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. In a video interview, CFR's Steven A. Cook says that the statehood declaration, "perhaps for the first time, [lets us] look at territories to the east of the green line as Palestine and to the west as Israel. That is an achievement the U.S. should work with."

But others, including CFR President Richard N. Haass, argue that while "frustration and desperation" may be pushing Abbas to turn to the UN, nonmember observer-state status is not likely to expedite a Palestinian state. "Resolving the Palestinian conflict," writes Haass, "requires direct talks, the only proven method of advancing peace in the region." An editorial in the New York Times concurs that "a negotiated deal is the only way to ensure the creation of a viable Palestinian state, guarantee Israel's security, and build a lasting peace."

With the Quartet's statement, it is unclear if a Security Council vote on the issue will come to pass. Since it will take some time before a Security Council vote (NYT), the United States could possibly still forestall a showdown, say experts. The United States could use the extended period to redouble its diplomatic campaign and reduce the public attention granted to the PA when a vote does take place.

Background Materials:

"Palestinian Statehood at the UN," CFR.org

"The War over Statehood," The Economist

"The Palestinian Bid for UN Membership: Rationale, Response, Repercussions," Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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