Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Palestinians and The U.N.

On Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed what political watchers have long speculated: the Palestinians will press the issue of state membership in the U.N., and as a result international recognition of statehood, this coming week. Right now, in response, the West is engaging in a diplomatic flurry, trying to head off Abbas' move at the U.N. On Wednesday, U.S. diplomats Dennis Ross and David Hale left for the region for separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas. The Europeans have been busy as well. E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and former British Prime Minister and current Middle East envoy Tony Blair have met this week with Israeli and Palestinian officials. And today, diplomats from the Middle East Quartet (which includes the U.S., E.U., Russia, and the U.N.) met in New York to find ways to avoid a showdown at the U.N.

What's driving the actions of the Palestinians? They believe Israel won't make the desired concessions on settlement freezes (in West Bank) and the division of Jerusalem, among other things, which are preconditions for the Palestinians to start negotiating in earnest again, at least not unless pressure is significantly upped. They hope their push at the U.N. will do precisely that--perhaps to the extent that Israel comes back to the negotiating table and negotiates on better terms for them.

In Palestinians' view, they can't wait for the U.S. and its allies to pressure its client. They must take the initiative and seek to change the political status quo. And it's not just bilateral relations that are at stake. To the Palestinians, if Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, gobbling up more and more land, then it's highly unlikely that they'll ever have a homeland. There just won't be enough land for a functioning state.

While I don't endorse what the Palestinians plan to do at the U.N., their actions understandable. And they're certainly a step up from employing violence as a means to change Israel's behavior. But the U.N. route, so to speak, is fraught with all kinds of problems. At a minimum, their actions likely won't succeed, and at a maximum, they could worsen Israeli-Palestinian relations and cause the entire region to explode in violence and conflict.

Here are some of the problems:

1. The Palestinians won't get state membership from U.N. If it comes down to it, the U.S. will block any motion in the U.N. Security Council by wielding its veto power. America's position is that Palestinian statehood (along with a host of other bilateral issues) can only be solved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that produce a comprehensive peace agreement. The most the Palestinians will get is an upgrade in their status via the U.N. General Assembly, from "entity" to a "non-member state," a designation also currently held by the Vatican.

2. Because of its history and geography, Israel is particularly sensitive about its national security. Current events in the region have only heightened these concerns. Clearly, the Arab Spring has played a big role here, as it has opened up greater space for populations to vent their grievances with Israel, as well as given local governments an opportunity to stir up trouble. Just look at the circumstances surrounding Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iran. At the same time, Turkey, an aspiring regional power, has begun flexing its muscles with Israel, creating a big rift in its bilateral relations. All of these things are added to a batch of outstanding problems that Israel faces, such as the omnipresent anti-Israel propaganda and politics in the Middle East, the fear that Iran seeks nuclear capabilities, and the existence of anti-Israel terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

In this political, security, and strategic environment, the Palestinians' attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Israel runs the grave risk of making Israel feel like its under siege from all sides, like its being unjustifiably backed into a corner. This, in turn, could lead Israel to take very stringent counter-measures in retaliation.

According to Reuters: "Some officials suggest the government should withhold tax transfers to the Palestinians as a punishment -- levies Israel collects which make up 70 percent of PA revenues -- or withdraw travel privileges for PA leaders looking to leave the West Bank. Others propose even more dramatic measures, with Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau of the nationalist Yisrael Betenu Party demanding that Israel annex its major West Bank settlement blocs in response to any U.N. resolution." Further, on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned of "harsh and grave consequences" if the Palestinians go ahead with their drive for U.N. membership. And keep in mind that should violence break out in the so-called occupied Palestinian territories, on Israel's borders, or inside Israel, the hawkish Netanyahu government won't back down. Military force will be an option on the table. If this happens, how will the Palestinians react? How will other countries in the region respond? Could we see a return to the levels of violence in 2006? Or might we see something even more ominous, with the Middle East turning into a tinderbox, just waiting for the right match to ignite a dangerous conflagration of extremism, conflict, warfare, and terrorism?

All of this is not to absolve Israel from blame, should it implement antagonistic measures in response to the Palestinians. Nor am I suggesting that violence and conflict will necessarily occur in the near future. Rather, I am simply sketching out some of the scenarios that the Palestinians could unintentionally set into motion this week. Unfortunately, an outbreak of violence is one possible outcome.

One, they underestimate the extent to which they've raised expectations for some sort of political change on the ground. Once the people see that not much has changed in reality, they're likely to experience deep disappointment. The question, then, is: how will this disappointment be channeled? Will they target Israel? Or if the U.S. uses its veto power in the U.N., might they and their sympathizers take out their frustrations on American interests in the Middle East and around the world? And two, the Palestinians overestimate the effectiveness of their policing and security forces in the West Bank. I doubt these institutions will be able to adequately thwart or contain a massive response from the Palestinian people. Additionally, for the sake of argument, even if Abbas and his crew can cope with whatever happens on the ground in the West Bank, this says nothing about events in Gaza, the place Hamas politically controls. Most assuredly, there are a radicals within the ranks of Hamas who would use the pretext of a failed bid for U.N. membership to create trouble. And this possibility is bolstered by the recent upheaval in Egypt, where the new military junta has loosened a bit the country's oversight over Gaza.

While the U.N. has praised the Palestinians, and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam in particular, for building and strengthening its economic and political institutions, let's not get carried away here. Much work still needs to be done. Indeed, it's questionable at best whether the Palestinian Authority (PA) is really a state and can function as such.

The PA still doesn't have control over Gaza, and certainly doesn't have control over the guns and rockets and missiles there. There are deep and destabilizing internal political divisions between Fatah and Hamas. The PA lacks unified security forces that integrate Hamas and Fatah personnel. The Palestinians are almost completely dependent on outside assistance to prop up their economy. The rule of law is more fantasy than reality. And lastly, let's set the record straight on the Abbas government. Remember that Hamas won the last "national" legislative elections in 2006, capturing the government. But since the Hamas-Fatah split in 2007, Abbas and his Fatah cronies in the West Bank have presented themselves to the rest of world as holding the seat of power. No matter what the West says or thinks, the Abbas government is an illegitimate entity, as it doesn't legally speak for all Palestinians. (Please see Aaron David Miller's outstanding piece in Foreign Policy, for more on the Palestinian state.)

Rather than spending time on this U.N. gambit, the Palestinians would be better off continuing to concentrate its resources and attention to its institutional building processes. This would help the Palestinians in a number of ways. It would be very good for the the Palestinian people, help to overcome internal political divisions, likely galvanize more international support, and put pressure on Israel in a non-confrontational way. But most importantly, it might reassure Israel that they can fix their own problems, including various security issues that worry Israel, and act as a competent neighbor. In this way, state building can serve as a confidence enhancing mechanism between the Palestinians and Israelis, which is essential, given the state of mutual distrust between both sides.

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