from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Palestine’s Muddled Statehood Strategy

November 28, 2012

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If all goes according to plan, the UN General Assembly will vote on Thursday or soon after to accord Palestine “non-member observer state status” in the United Nations. According to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization who initiated the effort, it is intended to enhance the Palestinians’ leverage in future negotiations with Israel. Writing in the New York Times on May 16, 2011, Abbas explained his rationale: “Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another, and not as a vanquished people.” The fundamental problem with Abbas’ approach is that rather than encourage such talks, his U.N. gambit is more likely to delay, if not undermine, the prospects for negotiations that would lead to genuine Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel anytime in the immediate future.

The Palestinians’ approach at the United Nations sends two conflicting messages at the same time. On the one hand, Abbas claims he wishes to cooperate with Israel and resolve Israeli-Palestinian differences peacefully. All he is trying to do, he says, is gain some negotiating leverage. Yet at the same time, the Palestinians are conveying the message that their efforts are a punitive unilateral act designed to confront Israel, rather than cooperate with it down the road. This is dangerous for the Palestinians, given that Israel possesses a preponderance of power and controls the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

The confrontational perception was fortified in the past few days when the Palestinians reportedly rejected U.S. and Israeli efforts to temper the resolution and denude it of the one thing Israelis fear most and Palestinians deny as its intent: the ability to challenge Israel and individual Israelis in international fora, most notably the International Criminal Court (ICC). For months, the Palestinians had said they were willing to provide assurances that they would not challenge Israel in the ICC. But when asked in recent days, the Palestinians refused to alter the text to state that they would not approach the ICC to file charges against Israeli officials. Instead, the Palestinians suggested they would provide an oral guarantee that they would not file changes at the ICC for the next six months. Rather than provide solace, this Palestinian offer only reinforced the sense that the statehood bid is a way to confront Israelis with punitive actions if a settlement is not reached according to a Palestinian-imposed timeline.

In the face of such an approach, and coming as Israel moves into the heat of an election campaign, the effect of the U.N. resolution will be to harden Israeli prime minister Netanyahu’s attitudes towards concessions to the Palestinians, not encourage them. It will likely trigger Israeli punitive measures, such as withholding Palestinian tax remittances, constrained movement and access within the West Bank, and possibly unilateral Israeli moves to annex West Bank territory. At a minimum, we can expect accelerated Israeli settlement activity.

The United States is also likely to be very unhappy with President Abbas when the UN votes. President Obama has urged the Palestinians for over a year not to push a vote at the United Nations. Indeed, Obama called Abbas on November 11, just days after the U.S. elections, to ask the Palestinian president to give the American president time to prepare his policies for a second term. Abbas clearly and inauspiciously rebuffed him in a gesture that will no doubt figure into Obama’s calculations for his upcoming Middle East policies. Moreover, the Congress is likely to suspend U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

Yet Abbas sees no viable alternative in front of him. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who three and a half years ago professed his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel in his heralded Bar-Illan University speech, never offered a clear strategy or plan for moving forward. President Obama, in May 2011, laid out a vision for a peace agreement delineating Palestine’s borders and Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements. Yet rather than pursue that vision, the president launched no diplomatic effort to realize it.

After the United Nations vote, Abbas will presumably return to his West Bank headquarters where the realities will be exactly as he left them: Israel occupies all of Jerusalem and the majority of the West Bank. Nothing that happens in New York will have changed that. The Palestinians will have forfeited their 65-year long moral claim as that of a stateless people. Now, they will have a virtual state, but not one where it counts--on the ground.

Given all the downsides of pursuing this statehood gambit, why is Abbas moving forward with this less than airtight strategy? Clearly, he calculates that the costs of inaction are even greater than all the moves’ inherent risks. With Hamas having just confronted Israel with short and medium term missiles, backing down from the diplomatic effort he has pursued over the year and a half, could be politically suicidal. Moreover, as he enters his twilight years as the Palestinian’s leader, he no doubt seeks some sort of legacy achievement. Thus, a symbolic victory in New York, albeit one that changes nothing on the ground in Palestine, is still better than no action at all. Such an accomplishment is likely to be pyrrhic and short lived. The challenge then will be to prevent the action in New York from further damaging the prospects for a more coherent approach that could lead to a lasting peace between Israel and a genuine Palestinian state.