FDD Hosts: Palestinian Unilateral Statehood at the UN: Strategies, Tactics and Challenges

September 22, 2011
1:30 pm -

Event Description

On Thursday, September 22, 2011, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies hosted a panel discussion on the anticipated Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations. Participants included FDD’s vice president of research, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer; FDD senior fellow Emanuele Ottolenghi; and Al Hayat’s Washington correspondent, Joyce Karam. Moderating the panel was Cliff May, President of FDD.

Dr. Jonathan Schanzer described the situation as fluid, and said we could not yet pick winners and losers from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for statehood. Contrary to popular belief, Schanzer noted, the UDI is not a new initiative.

“From what I picked up from Palestinians and other diplomats,” Schanzer said, “it actually dates back to 2005, with the ascendance of Abbas as president.”

While working with the peace process, Schanzer said, Abbas began building support for a Palestinian state. “It is amazing to me how long it took the Israelis and U.S. to do something about it.”

The U.S. and its European allies are now pushing to shelve the Palestinian resolution in the UN Security Council, in hopes that cooler heads will prevail.

If the Palestinians don’t win support of the Security Council, they may still go to the General Assembly, Schanzer said. Palestinian leaders have been billing their bid as “Palestine 194,” a reference to the Palestinians’ hope to become the 194th member state in the United Nations.

The General Assembly cannot grant full UN membership to a Palestinian state, but it can grant the Palestinians non-member status, like that of the Vatican. This status could bestow upon the Palestinians the ability to appeal to the International Criminal Court in an effort to reclaim land or try Israelis for war crimes.

The Israelis hope that the European Union will water down the Palestinian resolution in the General Assembly, if it gets to that. Along with language that precludes the Palestinians from going to the ICC, the Israelis also hope to insert language that would prompt the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

With the UN Security Council’s decision to deliberate for several weeks on the Palestinian application for membership, U.S. officials are breathing a collective sigh of relief. President Obama had already vowed to veto such a bid. There was significant fear that forcing U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to raise her hand and veto a Palestinian state before the whole world would have been a black eye for the United States, squandering good will, and making future public diplomacy in the Arab world more difficult.

As for the Palestinians, one has to admit that they have thrust the Palestinian agenda onto the world stage. The question is whether or not they have an end game. Palestinian officials admitted to me privately that they do not know what Abbas is doing, or how this will end. Obama administration officials also don’t believe there is a concrete strategy.

Finally, it is important to note that Abbas’ strategy was not without personal risk. Palestinians are palpably aware that his term legally ended in 2009, and they are acutely aware that he is corrupt. What happens when the dust settles and nothing has changed for the Palestinians? This could result in widespread frustration in the West Bank. Would this prompt an Arab Spring style event in the West Bank?

Joyce Karam focused on the Arab street, noting that there is frustration among the Palestinians, as well as other Arab populations. Arabs looked at Oslo, Camp David and even Annapolis and tended to believe, “this is the beginning of the solution.” Now, this process is collapsing. Indeed, they heard Obama say “1967 borders,” and then at the UN, he stepped back from that formulation. Thus, there is a sense of cynicism on the Arab street. 77 percent of Palestinians don’t want Abbas to return to negotiations.

I always get asked, “why does Israel rule America?” You try and explain that things are not so black and white. But if you are an average Arab, and you have seen the 1967 war and 1982 war, to you Israel is an enemy. You hear many radio stations still refer to as Israel as the “Zionist Entity.” Ehud Barak is known as the “Minister of War.” There is a lot of work still needed to bridge the gap.

With the Arab Spring, populism is returning to the Arab street. It is a little bit scary. When you look Jordan and Egypt, with the attacks on the Israeli embassy, that populism is steeped in anti-Israel sentiment. In Istanbul, the scene is the same. The Arab Spring, while it may bring a more open political system, brings high anti-Israel populism. Israel must now make peace not only with governments, but with the people.

As for Abbas, when he looks at his people, he sees that 83 percent support going to the UN. For him, this is a big opportunity. This was a guy who was butchered in the polls last year after the Al-Jazeera leaks that damaged his credibility, and after he heeded U.S. requests not to pursue Israel over the Goldstone Report.

When you bring all of this together, going to the UN will give Abbas a political boost in the Palestinian and Arab streets. Hamas opposing it is all the better for him; he can take all the credit. He will look like the leader who stood against Israel and the United States. It is a very calculated move for Abbas. Politically, on the ground, this fits within the Arab Spring environment and within the high anti-Israeli sentiment in the region.

Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi spoke of his experiences earlier this year in Europe, where he took part in a simulation of the events of the week of September 19 at the UN. There were several interesting lessons learned, he said, and three main points to underscore.

The first has to do with Europe. The European team tried to reflect the nuances of the EU. Their primary concern was to keep Europe together, avoiding internal divisions among European states.

Their second concern was to avoid a transatlantic crisis. They did not want the Palestinian bid to create the same destructive dynamics that Europeans have fresh in their minds from the prelude to the Iraq war in 2003.

Their third concern was that the EU insisted upon a return to negotiations, but at the same time their public opinions were clearly and squarely behind the Palestinian bid.

The most organized team in this simulation was the Islamists. The lesson he took from them was that they saw the UN bid as an opportunity to stir the region to their advantage.

The third point is about the Palestinian Authority itself. The PA was pressed and cornered several times about what they intended to do the day after declaring independence. They were asked how they would react to possible Israeli countermeasures. They were asked what they would do if international financial support were withdrawn. They were pressed to explain whether they would pursue the rights of sovereignty, or whether they would take control of border crossings. They had not thought about these and other issues.

In other words, the Palestinian declaration is an achievement within the realm of rhetoric and symbolism. It may not actually have any real consequences insofar as a real Palestinian state is concerned.

From my perspective, there is a potential that the outcome of all of this would be the end of UN Resolution 242. The diplomatic process has rested on this fundamental pillar for four decades.

By going the unilateral road, the Palestinian bid undermines the idea of reaching a peaceful diplomatic settlement through direct negotiations, preventing the parties from resolving core issues.

The bid is also an attempt to change the balance of power. A resolution by the UN would further hardens Palestinian demands vis-a-vis Israel.

There is also the potential for violence. Confrontations on the ground could come out of the charged situation at the UN. Once that happens, the diplomatic situation becomes secondary.

Thus, it is desirable that this process be stopped or diverted.

Cliff May remarked that Americans have heard Palestinians are disillusioned and upset that negotiations with the Israelis are not bearing fruit. Abbas and other officials say that there cannot be a two-state solution if that means a Jewish state existing alongside a Palestinian state. By refusing to accept the existence of Jewish state, the Palestinians are telling the Israelis that a settlement is only another word for surrender.

From our conversations with PA officials, we hear that they oppose acknowledging Israel as Jewish state because they are worried about the implications for the so-called “right of return.” If they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, then they cede a point in negotiations. But these refugees cannot possibly go back to Tel Aviv or Haifa. Palestinians simply want to keep the refugee issue alive and use it as leverage to get more concessions from Israel.

Question: Noted Egyptian democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim asked the speakers to address the implications of the Arab protest movements and the Palestinian bid for statehood. Ibrahim suggested that the tensions have reached a place where compromise is necessary.

Schanzer responded that we are seeing compromise now amidst the chaos. World powers, specifically those in the UN Security Council, have consequently found a way to shelve the resolution once it is submitted.

Creative diplomacy has emerged from this, Schanzer said. World leaders are realizing that this does not need to be handled right now. But it remains to be seen how all of this plays out on the ground back in the West Bank.

One of the concerns that we have, Schanzer said, is the potential for an “intra-fada,” in which the Palestinian people voice frustration against Abbas. There is also great deal of concern for a third intifada. Earlier this year, Palestinian individuals tested the boundary with Israel, forcing the Israelis to respond. Minor clashes can easily devolve into a full uprising.

One positive sign, however, is that Palestinian and Israeli forces are working together in order to stave off violence. They realize that violence does no good for anybody. The PA realizes that if there is an uprising, they could be weakened, and that will play into the hands of Hamas.

Joyce Karam responded that the situation on the Arab street is very unpredictable. Things can easily get out of hand. That is why it is crucial to reach a compromise that would delay the process at the UN. The Palestinians will probably accept delaying it. Abbas, she said, knows he won’t get approval at the UN Security Council. He is looking to the UN General Assembly.

Turkey plays a big role in this. There is increasing Turkish influence in the region. You could see a sort of popular alliance in the region against Israel. That is why it is important to return to the negotiations. The one thing Obama will not want to do is to let this opportunity pass without doing anything.

Emanuele Ottolenghi said he did not know what the Arab street thinks, but found it difficult to believe that societies that had been obsessively fed an image of Israel as an enemy for decades would change just because their old leaders were gone. The question, he said, is whether the governments can live by agreements that are in place. The Egyptian transitional government is a good example of this.

Ottolenghi predicted that things on the Arab street will get much worse. As a result, we should take the crisis and make it into an opportunity. In Israeli-Palestinian issues, we go from crisis to crisis, he argued, always calling for diplomacy. The U.S. and its allies have done this for 10 years, rather than acknowledging what seems to be the fundamental problem: there are two actors, they have mutually exclusive claims, they have conducted negotiations and the international community has tried to help, to no avail.

The gap is unbridgeable, and that is why the Palestinians are going to the UN. They think and hope the UN will bridge that gap towards their position on borders.

Question: The right of return is arguably the core issue of the conflict. Obama’s speech was considered pro-Israel and mentioned Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people. What was the President’s goal in stating this?

Ottolenghi stated that there is no consensus in Europe on calling Israel “the Jewish State.” There is a level of discomfort of openly and publicly saying so. If the Europeans recognized Israel as a Jewish state, they could make a contribution to bridging the gaps previously mentioned.

Schanzer responded that the Obama administration did not mention Israel as a Jewish state, but some officials had indicated that the administration still hoped to put that formulation in a Quartet statement, coming soon. It wouldn’t be explicit, Schanzer predicted, but U.S. officials are trying to dangle a carrot. Also, this would not be a lone statement by Obama, but rather, a coordinated effort with our allies.

Schanzer stated that the Netanyahu government, for all its flaws, has made it clear that it will return to talks without preconditions. But with the UN Security Council resolution tabled, power has returned back into the Obama administration. This has restored the United States’ role as protector of Israel and arbiter of the peace process. Obama will be able to use this as leverage against the Israelis, if he deems it necessary.

Question: A recent poll said 69 percent of Israelis believe Israel should accept a Palestinian state if the United Nations does. What is the view from Israeli street?

Schanzer responded that polls are more effective in Israel than they are in the Palestinian Authority, which is not a place where opinion is expressed freely. Polls of Palestinian opinion have failed us numerous times in the past, including polls in 2006 suggesting that Fatah would win the Palestinian legislative elections. Hamas won that election by a landslide.

When one looks at the polls, more than half of Israelis want peace and compromise as long as the terms involved are reasonable. However, if you put three Israelis together, you get 10 opinions. The devil is in the details.

Cliff May observed that it is not clear that what Abbas has done is wise or useful in the interests of the Palestinians. It is not clear he has thought through the medium or long-term consequences of this action.

The last thing Obama wants, with elections coming, is to make this a big issue. If he succeeds, it’s great, but if he fails, it will have a major blowback. It may not be in his best interest to focus on this.

Joyce Karam agreed that it is dangerous for Obama to focus on this issue. A settlement freeze and normalization of ties is not going to happen. That approach is dead. But, she mused, if everyone knows what the solution looks like, why do we need intermediary steps?

Something along the lines of the Madrid Conference may be acceptable now. However, it is unclear if, during the Arab Spring, governments like Saudi Arabia and Jordan can come to the table.

There is also the possibility of a regional meeting. France would be more than happy to host it. This would be particularly important if Abbas is weakened politically by the UN bid.

Schanzer responded that, in backing the Palestinian unilateral bid, some European leaders wanted to level the playing field. It was designed to take the power out of the hands of the traditional brokers of the conflict. This was a theoretical question, with potentially dangerous outcomes, that many Europeans supported.

What we are seeing now, he said, are international efforts to corral both sides back into bilateral negotiations. The message is that negotiations are the only way forward. One policy, which appears to be taking shape, is shelving the Palestinian UN bid. Another policy FDD has been promoting is watering down the General Assembly resolution, should there be one, so that neither side can prosecute the other. The ideal language would force both sides to continue talking.

The international community has ignored that this was a manufactured crisis. Abbas drove this maneuver, and it was not in concert with the PA. He has been freelancing, and this maneuver ran counter to American interests and policies. We are all going to realize that this was a problem that began and ended with Mahmoud Abbas.

Emanuele Ottolenghi noted that the crisis we are confronting is part of many crises happening at a moment of unprecedented weakness of the west. The options we have, he said, are extremely limited.

We are not in a position to boss people around into embracing more reasonable and sensible policy options. Neither the U.S. nor Europe is in a good position.

Why does prime minister Erdogan do this? Because he can. We are at a moment of profound weakness of the west.

At conclusion of the simulation he conducted, Ottolenghi said, he asked people what they took away. The members of the American team told the Europeans they were surprised that the European team had not suggested that they relaunch the Clinton Parameters — something that was tangible and detailed enough to jumpstart. But the West cannot do it.

Israel could take a number of measures against the Palestinians. Each and every countermeasure can have very significant escalating consequences on the ground, and can be matched by equally destabilizing actions by the Palestinians.

There are not many policy options. Anyone who wants to see a two-state solution should do his best to encourage the Palestinians to withdraw this resolution.

Jonathan Schanzer reiterated that this has been a manufactured crisis. The process through which this is about to march through the UN is convoluted. Delaying the Palestinian bid will allow for a process of negotiations to be kick-started. Regardless of the weakness of the west, an immense amount of pressure will be put on the Palestinians and Israelis for a forward-looking plan.

We are at not at the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning of a new chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stemming from the unilateral bid.

Joyce Karam concluded that everyone involved in the negotiations needs each other. There is an opportunity there. Abbas will get a short-term political boost for his play at the UN. Whether he can capitalize on that, we do not know. How Hamas will play it from here we do not know, either. There will be a lot of unanswered questions. The peace process seems more pressing that it did last September.


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