from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Palestinians at the UN: the Copper Lining

August 23, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The Palestinian Authority/PLO continues its march toward a UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood. At the least, the Palestinians’ status may be elevated from that of a “non-state entity” observer to a “non-member state” observer.

This development may have very negative consequences. For one thing, the text of the resolution itself may become a problem in future negotiations. If the resolution, for example, declares that the borders of “Palestine” are those of the Jordanian-controlled West Bank as of June 3, 1967 (plus Gaza), negotiating territorial compromises may become even more difficult for Palestinian leaders. How can they give away a part of what the United Nations General Assembly has said is “Palestine?”

It is also possible that violence may result from the UN vote. If the Palestinians decide to begin very large demonstrations (one example: having thousands of protesters surround isolated settlements), no one can be sure whether the Palestinian and Israeli police will in the end be able to control such confrontations without any violence—from Palestinians, settlers, or the police themselves. Even the new head of the Arab League now has his doubts: "The unilateral appeal to the U.N. Security Council and U.N. General Assembly could be a very dangerous move for the Palestinians during this period and I propose that Abbas reconsider the handling of the matter," said Nabil El Araby.

And American legislators have already predicted that if the PLO goes forward with its plans, Congress will cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. This assistance is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and will not be easily replaced, for European donors are tapped out and Arab donors are stingy.

These are but a few of the negative repercussions if, as I expect, the Palestinians go forward. President Abbas, the successor of Yasser Arafat but usually a sensible man, may be looking for a legacy in this vote, which theoretically precedes presidential elections in which he will not run and will finally end his long political career. Given the ever-slipping Palestinian election schedules, Abbas may have a long while to go yet as president. But whatever the timing, he should think twice and perhaps remind himself of the immortal lyrics of Groucho Marx about another non-existent country, Freedonia (in the movie Duck Soup): "The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what to do with it/If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ’til I get through with it."

Nevertheless, there is a silver lining or at least a copper lining in a UN General assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, and it is worth noting.

For years now, the Palestinians have opposed Israeli actions—from construction in the settlements to the failure to reach a final status agreement—with the threat of the “one state solution.” This is the threat that Palestinians would seek a unitary state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and encompassing all of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, wherein Jews would be a minority. Thus would the main goal of Zionism, creation of a Jewish state, be defeated.

President Abbas has made this threat and so have other high-ranking Palestinian officials including chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and former Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. But the threat is logically gone after the General Assembly vote. By insisting on going forward despite American and substantial European resistance, the Palestinians are committing themselves completely to the two-state solution. Their “gain” at the General Assembly must be viewed as the final, irrevocable commitment to that outcome and should destroy their ability to make their “one-state” threats any longer. It is critical that the United States, Canada, the EU, and all countries committed to peace in the Middle East make this point loudly and clearly now and after the vote.

On balance it would be far better if the Palestinians found some justification for backing away from this foolish, damaging vote. But let us not ignore the single positive factor: when the General Assembly not only declares its support for Palestinian statehood but votes that there IS a Palestinian state, the “one-state solution” must happily die a final death.

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