- After a week of intense diplomacy in New York, the Palestinians remain committed to their unilateral attempt to be recognised as a state at the UN.
- Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showing some flexibility, the Quartet was unable to secure agreed terms of reference for a return to talks. It proposed only a timetable for reaching an agreement, calling for a ‘preparatory meeting’ in one month.
- Netanyahu is likely to formally accept the proposal, which accords with his preference for talks without preconditions. However, the Palestinians do not want to enter negotiations with Netanyahu, and seem unlikely to drop their demand for a full settlement freeze and acceptance of 1967 lines as the basis for talks.
- Though the Palestinian application to the UN Security Council looks set to either stall or meet with a US veto, the Palestinians retain the option of becoming a non-member state at the UN General Assembly, a move that could undermine a future negotiated agreement.
What is the outcome of the diplomacy in New York?
A week of intense diplomacy failed to prevent Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from submitting his application for Palestinian membership of the UN to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday, 23 September, 2011.
After tough speeches by both Abbas and Netanyahu to the General Assembly on Friday, the Quartet issued a statement proposing a timetable for a return to talks. It called for a ‘preparatory meeting’ within a month, followed by comprehensive proposals on borders and security within three months and an agreement by the end of 2012.
This proposal follows the Quartet’s failure to broker agreed terms of reference for renewed negotiations. The statement is conspicuous by its lack of any attempt to define the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, despite considerable diplomatic work to find a form of words acceptable to both sides. The Palestinians remain opposed to re-entering talks with Netanyahu without a full settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of 1967 borders as the basis for talks. Netanyahu’s preference is for talks without preconditions.
Senior US diplomats informed reporters that Netanyahu had ‘responded quite flexibly and responsibly’ to US compromise proposals on returning to talks. Netanyahu himself told the General Assembly that he was willing to negotiate on the basis of US ‘ideas’ with regard to borders. Israeli sources have indicated that he would have accepted reference in some form to the 1967 borders as a basis for talks, if it came with clear conditions about the need to recognise demographic changes on the grounds. Yet whatever concessions Netanyahu offered were clearly not enough to overcome Palestinian reluctance to enter talks.
Since the Quartet timetable has no preconditions attached to it, Israel has responded positively. However, it is not clear how the Quartet believes it can compel the Palestinians to agree to engage in the process. The diplomatic pressure put on Abbas by the US and EU so far has not succeeded in convincing him to drop his preconditions.
Where do the Palestinians stand now?
There was no hint in Abbas’s speech to the UN of a leader looking for a way back to the negotiating table. Abbas gave an incendiary speech, filled with anti-Israel propaganda, which was designed to appeal to the Palestinian and wider Arab public. He accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and the murder of civilians. Equally provocative to Israelis was his reference to Palestine as ‘the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ’, with no mention of the Jewish connection to Israel.
The cool Palestinian response to the Quartet statement indicates that despite considerable international pressure, they are unmoved by this latest attempt to bring them to the negotiating table. The Palestinians will try to avoid saying a direct ‘no’ to the Quartet, but it is hard to see them dropping their preconditions and actually coming to the table.
There is a limit to how much pressure the EU and US can put on the PA. The US Congress is threatening to cut off American funding to the Palestinians if the US is forced to veto a Palestinian UN membership bid in the Security Council, but the administration will be reluctant to see this happen. The EU, the US and Israel fear the collapse of the PA, which could open the door to Hamas. When Abbas himself talked in his UN speech of the PA’s possible collapse, it was a thinly veiled threat to the international community. The Palestinians are also aware that there is a lack of confidence among European officials about Netanyahu’s ability to reach a deal.
Meanwhile, Abbas is still under domestic political pressure to deliver a concrete result at the UN. The Palestinian membership bid looks set to stall or be voted down in the Security Council. Therefore, the Palestinians are unlikely to wait long before turning to the option of upgrading to the status of ‘non-member state’ via a General Assembly resolution.
Abbas’s stance against Israel and the US is bolstering his standing in Palestinian public opinion. This could be seen as a positive development, given the threat of Hamas. But it risks playing into the hands of those on the Israeli right who argue that there is no Palestinian partner for peace.
Where does Israel stand now?
Netanyahu also addressed the UN with an eye on his domestic audience. He spoke more fulsomely than Abbas of the need for peace, but at the same time he was forthright in his defence of Israel’s position. He accused the Palestinians of wanting a ‘state without peace’, and reasserted his insistence that peace would be based on security arrangements that meet Israel’s needs, including an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. He also attacked the UN itself for its anti-Israel bias.
In the coming days, Israel may enjoy a moment of diplomatic respite, whilst the Security Council considers the UN membership bid and pressure builds on the Palestinians to accept the return to direct talks. However, Israel is still concerned that the General Assembly will recognise Palestine as a non-member state, with all the associated worries about that opening the door to legal steps against Israelis in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other international forums. Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni continues to accuse Netanyahu of failing to stem the tide of Israel’s diplomatic isolation by launching a diplomatic initiative.
Right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are calling for punitive measures against the PA, should a resolution pass at the UN. Lieberman could pull his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the coalition at any time, leading to the collapse of the government, and Netanyahu will be concerned about being outflanked on the right in a future election.
What happens next?
The Quartet will now attempt to organise the ‘preparatory meeting’ between the parties within a month, as described in their statement. However, it is hard to see Abbas backing down on his preconditions, making the chances of holding the meeting look slim.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian UN membership application will be put before the Security Council by its rotating president, Lebanon, on Wednesday, 28 September. The Security Council will then form a committee, consisting of representatives of all 15 members, to review the membership request. From this point on, the request is in the hands of the Security Council members. If the US thinks it has the seven votes necessary to dismiss the motion at this point, without it needing to use its veto, the Americans could try to move swiftly to a vote. Alternatively, the parties could take their time considering the application. They could, for example, request more information from the Palestinians, and drag the process out by weeks or months.
If the Palestinians seek a resolution at the General Assembly before the Security Council process has run its course, they may sacrifice the support of the EU Security Council members. However, even without united European support, chances of achieving a substantial majority at the General Assembly remain sound.
A General Assembly resolution threatens to undermine the basis for any future negotiated solution, by imposing one-sided terms of reference and opening the door to prosecutions being brought against Israelis in the ICC. EU states may yet try to negotiate with the Palestinians to moderate the text of a General Assembly resolution to limit its damage to the peace process. This would mean ensuring balanced terms of reference, including in the text the need to return to negotiations, and finding a mechanism to prevent ICC prosecutions.
Meanwhile the situation on the ground will remain tense. There were two fatal incidents of violence on Friday. A young Israeli father and his one-year-old son, residents of the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron, were killed when a rock was thrown at their car. In a separate incident, a Palestinian man was killed in a clash with Israeli security forces near Nablus. Despite these incidents, impressive security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces prevented widespread outbreaks of violence. Nonetheless, the threat of uncontrolled escalation remains heightened, given the political climate.
Go to BICOM Spotlight: UN vote on Palestinian statehood for analysis, updates and podcast interviews.