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A Palestinian Autumn in New York — What to Expect at the U.N.

September 14, 2011 |
The Palestinian leadership remains captive to the Israeli and donor-dependent system of occupation management entrenched over time by the Oslo process. Their U.N. move is intended to vent frustration, not to be game-changing.
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While the relentless pace of developments in the Middle East shows little sign of flagging, the region will briefly cast its gaze to New York next week -- with the backdrop for the next installment on Israel-Palestine being provided by Manhattan's East side digs of the United Nations. Any thoughts of the Arab awakening "proving" that Palestine was in fact a marginal concern in the region were unequivocally banished in recent weeks. To imagine that a popular Arab push for democracy, freedom, and dignity would ignore Israel's denial of those same aspirations for Palestinians was a flight of fancy. The opposite is unsurprisingly proving true -- Arab democracy will be less tolerant of Palestinian disenfranchisement than was Arab autocracy.

What is actually likely to happen to the Palestinian effort at the United Nations and what might it mean for all concerned?

Even at this late stage it is unclear exactly which U.N. option, if any, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (for it is the PLO that is still the diplomatic-political address for the Palestinians) will pursue. That should not be such a surprise -- opacity is part of any negotiation and last minute decisions are the bread and butter of international diplomacy, in this case compounded by the uncertainty and absence of a clear strategy on the part of the Palestinian leadership. Their U.N. options basically fall into three baskets: do nothing, go for membership at the Security Council, or go for an upgrade at the General Assembly.

The United States is still applying pressure on the Palestinians to pull back altogether from any U.N. effort and U.S. envoys will be in the region again this week arm-twisting (Palestinian arms that is; Israeli arms will be free to continue their post Arab Spring flailing routine).

The Quartet also continues to be engaged with producing a joint statement, the goal of which -- beyond demonstrating that they still know how to issue statements -- is difficult to fathom. Another Quartet run at producing parameters for a two-state deal or for resuming negotiations (after July's debacle) would likely produce an unhelpful text and be of strictly limited utility at this stage. The kind of Quartet compromise that the United States is willing to promote will not break the negotiations logjam and may even set back any revival of belief in a two-state peace. It would also waste a potentially potent Quartet tool by having it deployed in such unpromising circumstances. All a Quartet statement might achieve is to help the United States heap further blame on the Palestinians for "running to the U.N." and further confuse European member states, providing some with new reasons to oppose a Palestinian U.N. resolution and others with more cover to support one. 

A combination of pressure and Quartet statements is still unlikely to dissuade the Palestinians from their U.N. course. For the current Palestinian leadership to drop the U.N. bid without getting something dramatic (and clearly not on offer) in return would amount to political hara-kiri -- not something that U.S. or Israeli leaders (or Europeans for that matter) should, on reflection, have much of an appetite for. As a new International Crisis Group (ICG) report argues:

Attempts to persuade or pressure Abbas to renounce the UN bid also make short shrift of -- or, worse, misread - the realities of Palestinian politics. If he were to postpone it...he would likely face a crippling domestic challenge by constituents who have long lost any faith in negotiations and to whom the leadership has built up the UN option for months. Most Palestinians do not strongly support the UN bid; but they would strongly oppose a decision to retract it without suitable compensation.

Assuming therefore that the Palestinians do intend to pursue something at the United Nations, their choices are to go to the Security Council or the General Assembly, or both, in either order.

Despite some suggestions to the contrary, the only viable Palestinian path to full U.N. membership is via the Security Council, and that route is blocked by the certainty of a U.S. veto. Failure at the Security Council may itself be a drawn-out process. Any application would almost certainly have to be considered by a technical committee of the whole and that could take time. The Palestinians would then deny themselves the option of going from defeat at the Security Council to an immediate win at the General Assembly during this window of heightened U.N. attention. They might even find their entire U.N. moment sidestepped by extended committee deliberation.

While neither the United States nor the Palestinians will emerge unscathed from a Security Council showdown, this course of action might actually be the easiest fix for preserving the status quo (undesirable as that is). The Palestinian leadership could rue the injustice of the world and indulge in its favored pastime of righteous indignation, but it would be spared the hard choices associated with going down the path of accumulating leverage and challenging Israel. The journey back to the golden cage of Palestinian Authority (PA) co-habitation with Israeli occupation is a shorter one from the Security Council than it is from the General Assembly.

Israel could much more easily brush off a Palestinian Security Council failure than a General Assembly success. One can imagine Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu berating Palestinian President Abbas but asserting that he is still ready for negotiations without conditions at any time -- a tri-fecta of domestic political win, great PR message, and an easier path for continuing to work with the PA as if nothing had happened (remembering that the continued functioning of the PA and security cooperation are above all an Israeli interest). Israeli messaging might even encourage  Congress to maintain its PA and especially PA security funding.

There are certainly more ingredients in play if the Palestinians go to the General Assembly and secure, albeit by increment, an improvement in their leverage vis Israel. The details of the text of any resolution at the General Assembly will become the focus of attention, given the reasonable assumption of obtaining a majority. There is a consensus that one element of a General Assembly resolution will be for the Palestinians to upgrade their status to non-member state. This is often described as the "Vatican option," but it should be remembered that more "real" countries have often spent time in the non-member state antechamber: Switzerland, South Korea, the former West Germany, and others. This upgrading would enhance the Palestinian capacity to join several international organizations and accede to certain human rights treaties, which could then be appealed to were Israel in violation of provisions covered by those treaties. The most powerful example of this is the International Criminal Court (ICC) (the minutiae of that issue are well-covered in ICG's report). Expect other components of wording in a resolution to be discussed right until the last moment, including possible parameters for a two-state deal that would include acknowledgement of Israel and language making it easier for Europe to clarify that the resolution does not prejudge bilateral recognition of Palestine at this time.

Given all of the above, perhaps the most piercing questions that need to be answered in the coming days are for the Palestinians themselves. It is fairly clear that a resolution passed by the General Assembly will create certain new Palestinian leverage with Israel and some enhanced deterrent effect when it comes to possible Israeli operations, such as a repeat of Cast Lead (the flip side also holds true -- a defeat at the Security Council further weakens deterrence and enhances Israel's sense of impunity).

With these uncertainties in mind there is still room for speculation as to what the scorecard might look like when this U.N. season is behind us.

Neither Israel nor the PLO will have seized the opportunity to significantly advance their respective interests. For Israel the option existed to engage with a U.N. initiative and to start re-setting its relations in a changing region. Israel could have assuaged suspicions regarding its permanent designs on the Occupied Territories and co-operated in promoting a resolution recognizing two states based on the 1967 lines (allowing also for land swaps) and supporting resumed negotiations. By recognizing Palestine, Israel could have deep-sixed the growing traction for a future one-state political dispensation and achieved something close to global, including Arab, recognition for Israel's own existence.

The Palestinians might have used the U.N. move to emphatically break with two decades of "peace-processing" based on the flawed premise that U.S. and Israeli goodwill, rather than accumulated leverage, would overcome asymmetries of power. The PLO could have announced a diplomatic and non-violent campaign both locally and internationally to generate costs to Israel for continued occupation -- utilizing the tools of international law, consequences, and popular unarmed struggle.

Instead, the Palestinian leadership remains captive to the Israeli and donor-dependent system of occupation management entrenched over time by the Oslo process. Their U.N. move is intended to vent frustration, not to be game-changing. The Netanyahu government appears to possess neither the political dexterity nor ideological propensity for de-occupation -- which are prerequisites for pursuing its own winning path. A Palestinian or Israeli U.N. victory will therefore be on points rather than by KO. That still matters and will produce a result with implications for the political futures of the individuals concerned and the currents they represent. Netanyahu may bounce back from his dreadful summer of social protests or fall further in his public's standing. Abbas may buy some time at home with a relative show of diplomatic strength or sink deeper into oblivion -- this in advance of the next moves in the internal Palestinian reconciliation process.

Most of the points waiting to be notched up reside in Europe. If there is to be a U.N. vote, then the EU member states are the sought after prize. Europe could score something of a win itself if the EU can present a sufficiently unified front and hold true to its values, interests, and policies by supporting Palestinian statehood and negotiating a text with the Palestinians that also delivers certain strategic Israeli needs -- even if these are neither acknowledged as such nor appreciated by the Netanyahu government. Alternatively, Europe will split and sulk back to its off-off-Broadway role as payer, not player.

Europe's salience is a bi-product of America's self-marginalization. Whatever the outcome, the United States is guaranteed to be the real loser in all of this. For domestic political reasons the Obama administration is committed to oppose any U.N. initiative not authorized by Israel and to cajole and convince other countries to do likewise. The United States will find itself isolated, blamed for its own vote and the "no's" of others, weakening its Palestinian friends while frittering away further diplomatic capital, and all at such a delicate time in the Middle East. Having previously been aligned with Arab autocracies, the U.S. could have opened a new chapter post-Arab awakening. Instead, with Arab public opinion now a driving force, the United States will further alienate itself from popular sentiment by (again) trampling Palestinian rights. Making matters worse for President Obama, the relationship with Netanyahu is wholly unidirectional. According to ex- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Netanyahu is "ungrateful" and U.S. interests (let alone Obama's own needs) do not figure in his calculations.

Those interests, and America's regional alliances, are being stretched to snapping point by the excesses of Israeli belligerence toward the neighborhood and dismissiveness toward the Palestinians under its current coalition. Democratic Turkey and democratizing Egypt are increasingly unable or unwilling to feign indifference. Israeli hegemony faces new and serious challenges. The unraveling of Israel's regional relations could make New York a sideshow, and a tame one at that. If Israel chooses to take punitive counter-measures against the Palestinians -- withholding tax revenues belonging to the PA, annexing settlements, or responding violently to unarmed marches (and if the Uunited States joins suit by cutting its own PA funding) -- then events could spiral in dangerous and unpredictable ways. The PLO move at the United Nations is not an incitement to violence by any reasonable measure -- but the Netanyahu government's response might become just that.

Watching from the sidelines with a mixture of amusement and bemusement will be America's emerging global competitors from the BRIC countries and beyond. After the recent Congressional debt-ceiling debacle, a U.N. display of the United States tying itself in knots and squandering reputational currency due to its inability to manage relations with a country so in its debt, will offer further evidence of Washington's unreliability as a competent world leader.