Beyond the Palestinian Setback at the UN

Palestinians are committed to a two-state solution despite losing a UN membership bid, says Mideast expert Daniel Levy, but moving forward requires addressing Israeli political entrenchment and a lack of Palestinian unity.

November 15, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Failure by Palestinians to get Security Council approval for UN membership was not unexpected, says Middle East expert Daniel Levy, but the attempt should be seen as a "desperate plea" by Palestinians for revitalizing the process for a two-state solution to which Palestinians remain committed. However, the stalled peace process looks increasingly irresolvable, Levy says, and may be "on a trajectory away from being able to put humpty dumpty back together again." He says that fundamental questions on both sides need to be addressed to help move forward, including the entrenchment of Israel’s political right and the lack of a credible unified Palestinian movement. He also says the issue provides "a new set of problems" for the United States, including preventing "Israeli excesses" in the Palestinian territories and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

Last week the Security Council announced that there was no consensus on admitting Palestine as a state to the UN. What’s the thinking of the Palestinians right now?

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People tend to misread where we are now. The Palestinian leadership has not said that a two-state solution is no longer feasible. They haven’t said that what we have to do now is pressure Israelis, sanction Israelis, have a popular uprising, call for the boycotting of Israel. There are literally about half a dozen things the Palestinians could do to radically reset the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. They have not done those things.

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Going for a vote at the United Nations is much more accurately understood as an almost desperate plea to try and give some hope and meaning to the prospect of getting somewhere through the old peace process. The Palestinians say that if there’s a settlement freeze by the Israelis, they will go back into negotiations the next day. The explanation to why they were taking this route, to the extent it was explained at all, was always about giving a kick start to get people refocused on negotiations.

So Palestinians never had any real hope in achieving membership this way?

This tactical move of going to the Security Council would never have achieved [UN] membership because the United States was always going to veto the effort, even if the Palestinians gained the necessary nine votes, which they have not. The statehood effort would not have shown American isolation as it did in February when the Council voted fourteen to one (NYT), with the United States using its veto, to condemn Israeli settlements. This time the British, French, and Germans said they were not going to support this statehood move. So from day one, the Palestinians knew they couldn’t get membership or even a vote that looked really stark for Israel and or even to force an American veto.

There are literally about half a dozen things the Palestinians could do to radically reset the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. They have not done those things.

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The other option was to go to the General Assembly where the Palestinians could get potentially a very large majority in their favor. But that’s not what they chose to do, and it’s very unclear that it is something they will do. President Mahmoud Abbas will have to decide what he does next.

So where does that leave the Israelis and the United States, especially given the upcoming 2012 U.S. presidential campaign?

The tactics that the Palestinians are employing probably create more discomfort for the United States than they do for Israel. You have an Israeli-Palestinian reality, which is looking increasingly irresolvable and increasingly questioning the very possibility of a two-state solution. There’s a whole new set of other problems for the United States as it manages its relationship with Egypt and other Middle East states. I think the challenge for the United States is, given all the limitations of American policy, whether it can prevent further deterioration and further problems in 2012.

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What are these problems?

[Preventing] the worst excesses on the side of the Israelis in the territories and [preventing] the collapse of the Palestinian Authority [because the] Israelis are withholding tax revenues. The one possible area of progress is the effort by the Middle East Quartet [the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations] to try to get the parties to present borders and security proposals. The Quartet has asked the Israelis and Palestinians to present proposals (OmanObserver) on borders and security. What’s unclear is whether the Quartet will try and get them to present those proposals in the absence of the parties resuming negotiation and presenting those proposals to each other.

So is the two-state approach still viable?

We may look back and say, "It needed heavy political lifting to carry it across the finish line" and that was provided in the year twenty-whatever. But it’s hard to imagine when that heavy political lifting from the outside is going to insert itself into the picture. The reality is--with over five hundred thousand Israelis creeping up to 10 percent of the Israel-Jewish population living beyond the Green Line [the border before the 1967 war]--it has become impossible to remove these Jewish outposts, which even the Israeli legal system considers illegal.

You have an Israeli-Palestinian reality, which is looking increasingly irresolvable, and increasingly questioning the very possibility of a two-state solution.

You [also] have an entrenched right wing in Israel. [Though] the new Israeli Labor Party leader, Shelly Yachimovich is now rising in the polls (NYT) [in the wake of this summer’s widespread protests on growing economic inequality in Israel], she is doing this in no small measure by consciously avoiding promoting the territories, the occupation, security issues--by making all of those things secondary. She doesn’t address those issues. So the hegemony of the right in Israel is something that is becoming increasingly entrenched.

On the Palestinian side, you have a leadership that’s still committed to that two-state vision, though increasingly it looks like something unattainable. So if you add that to the inability of the international community, led by the United States, to summon any real political depth when it comes to trying to force through hard choices on the parties, for the Israelis, there is very little incentive to try and change this reality. And even if you know how to carve out a deal, if it was seen as unjust by a lot of Palestinians, then I think there wouldn’t be the same kind of regional support.

So at the moment things are at a standstill and it’s hard to drum up optimism with the two-state solution, but do you hope that in a year or two things might improve?

I think the opposite. I think left to their own devices, things won’t improve. They are not at a standstill; they are on a trajectory away from being able to put humpty dumpty back together again. But there are things that can be done that conspicuously are not being done. Given the permanence of the right in Israel, there are things that could be done to start facing some fundamental questions. I think those are not being done. There are things on the Palestinian side to encourage the reconstitution of a credible unified national movement that would be able to make decisions. That’s not being done. There’s a list of other things that are not being done.


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