The basic story of current Israeli-Palestinian relations is, I’m sure, familiar to most of you by now. The Palestinians think Israel isn’t a sincere bargaining partner. In their view, Israel claims to want negotiate a peace deal, but is unwilling to make concessions to get a fair and just deal done. In fact, the only deal Israel is interested in pursuing, the Palestinians believe, is one in which the Abbas government concedes to all of its demands. Meantime, Israel won’t deal with the Palestinians as long as Hamas is a legitimate, legal player in Palestinian politics. This is a problematic stance, because Hamas isn’t going away anytime soon. It won national elections in 2006, and, despite declining approval numbers since then, still counts a sizable contingent of Palestinians as supporters. As a result, because of the beliefs and actions on both sides, we’re left with a political stalemate, just like we’ve had for decades.
This stalemate wouldn’t be an issue if both sides were satisfied with the status quo. But that’s not the case. Yes, Israel is fairly comfortable with the military balance of power as well as the amount of territory under its control. But the Palestinians, on the other hand, seek change (political recognition, territorial compensation, etc.) and are frustrated in their inability to achieve it: violence hasn't produced the desired results and will never do so because of Israel's preponderant military power; and the peace process, the primary mechanism to resolve the conflict, has long been dead. Right now, this sense of frustration is deepening and intensifying as the spirit of the Arab Spring has started to hit home, motivating the Palestinians to strive for what they see as their right to self-determination and freedom.
Going forward, it looks like the Palestinians will take unilateral diplomatic action. According to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority: "this September, at the United Nations General Assembly, we will request international recognition of the State of Palestine on the 1967 border and that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations." The Palestinians will make this diplomatic push so as to acquire the requisite international legitimacy to galvanize support for their goals.
Abbas wants to cultivate the image that Palestine is a peaceful law-abiding nation-state, one that’s willing to work through existing world bodies and play by the rules of the international community. In fact, his UN idea should be viewed as part of a diplomatic and political overhaul that the Palestinians are formally and informally implementing. For example, they are allowing and even encouraging relatively peaceful protests against Israel. And, of course, Fatah and Hamas have settled their differences and agreed to form a unity government of technocrats. Abbas knows this overall approach means more countries will listen to and be sympathetic to what he and the Palestinians have to say. Violence only limited their support around the world and thus hurt their cause. But a new and improved image gives many countries just looking for a reason to ditch Israel a reason to do so.
And Abbas might not stop there. He intends to use recognition by the UN as a springboard for further diplomatic action. In his words, "Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice."
Some of Abbas’s ideas, at least for now, are wishful thinking. In order to gain official recognition from the UN, the Security Council must approve all prospective candidates. And that’s not happening. Based on recent statements from Barack Obama, the U.S. will veto any effort by the Palestinians to reach statehood unilaterally. So statehood, UN membership, and ICJ prosecution, these are just dreams that won’t be fulfilled soon.
But just as important, Abbas will get a strong show of support for the Palestinians in the UN General Assembly, and that can act as a very powerful symbolic gesture with various implications. Let’s look at some of them.
1. Not only is the U.S. against the Palestinians seeking statehood through the UN, Obama has been feverishly trying to line up international support against such action. He hasn’t been very successful so far. Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to back the Palestinians’ effort at the UN if Israel doesn’t come back to the bargaining table. But even worse for the U.S., if the Palestinians go ahead with their UN plan and do receive widespread support in the UN GA, the decline of American global influence will be clearly visible for all to see. If the U.S. can’t marshal enough support to protect the interests of its best friend, then are there any countries that Washington can defend diplomatically?
2. More international support for the Palestinians will give them leverage in negotiations with Israel. Which is exactly what the Palestinians want. They want to negotiate a deal from a position of strength. Keep in mind that, in the end, despite all the blustering on both sides, this where and how the conflict will be resolved: at the bargaining table, via negotiations, and likely with intensive efforts from a host of international actors.
4. Lastly, given the long history between both sides, it is very easy to be pessimistic about the state of Israel-Palestinian relations. But perhaps the threat of going to the UN might jump start the talks and finally get something done. Maybe Israel will fear the possibility of losing too much bargaining leverage and initiate talks sometime before the fall. It's possible. But unfortunately, so is the likelihood that Israel will feel like it's under siege from the entire international community. If that happens, hardliners in Israel will become even more empowered, Israeli policy positions will become more inflexible, and Israel will pursue its own unilateral measures to enhance its security.