Key points

  • The Palestinian request for full membership of the UN is on the verge of failure, having proven unable to garner a nine vote majority. The Palestinians are now expected to seek non-member state status via the General Assembly.
  • The intense Palestinian activity at the UN is part of a broader effort to seek alternatives to the diplomatic framework that has guided Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy for decades.
  • Palestinian initiatives at the UN, which have led to Israeli and US responses against the PA, threaten to deteriorate cooperation on the ground, and are a reversal of the bottom-up progress made in recent years in the West Bank. The failure of the Palestinians at the Security Council also threatens the PA’s domestic credibility.
  • International diplomatic efforts are now underway to formulate a resolution that would enable the Palestinians to receive UN General Assembly endorsement, while preventing steps that could make a return to negotiations more complicated, such as litigation against Israel in the International Criminal Court. It is still unclear whether such an outcome is possible.

Introduction: the Palestinians facing a strategic crossroads

On Friday 11 November the UN Security Council (UNSC) will discuss the report of its admissions committee tasked with assessing the Palestinian request for UN membership. The US declared that it would veto from the outset. It now seems, however, that the Palestinians are unlikely even to garner the nine-vote majority needed to force a US veto.

The Palestinian leadership is at a crossroads following the failure of the UNSC bid. The option they are expected to take is to ask the the UN General Assembly to upgrade Palestine to the status of non-member observer state. The Palestinians would expect to secure a majority in the General Assembly for such a move. There are reports that the Palestinians may seek a vote on 29 November, the date that commemorates the UN vote endorsing the 1947 plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state.

Being recognised as a state by the General Assembly could pave the way for the Palestinians to seek membership of other UN affiliated international bodies. Israel is particularly concerned that the International Criminal Court might accept the 2009 Palestinian request to be recognised as a state, which could pave the way for war crimes allegations to be brought against Israel.

The Palestinians are also reportedly preparing to apply for membership of 16 other UN affiliated international agencies, starting with the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme. This follows their recent success as being admitted as a full member of UNESCO.

However, the collapse of the UNSC bid may alternatively push Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pursue more radical strategies. Abbas is reportedly keen to resign his position as President of the Palestinian Authority, and to be looking for an opportunity to do so. He may yet decide to reject the possibility of non-member state status at the General Assembly, and instead pursue the stalled unity agreement with Hamas and the plan to hold new Palestinian elections in May 2012.

Another, more dangerous possibility being mooted by some Palestinian officials is the threat to dismantle the Palestinian Authority. This would seem to run contrary to the strategy of having Palestine recognised as a state, and it is far from clear how this threat could be carried out in practice. Nevertheless, it reflects a genuine desire among some Palestinians to sweep away the current framework for negotiations, which they believe no longer serves Palestinian interests.

What are the Palestinian strategic options?

In many respects the Palestinian leadership has been internally divided over its strategy and goals. However, the broad thrust of their approach, since the election of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu three years ago, has been to seek alternatives to negotiations.

The Annapolis final status talks in 2008 culminated with a substantial offer by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, to which Abbas did not respond. At the same time, despite constructive direct talks, many Palestinians were calling into question the very notion of negotiations, and considering alternative strategies to promote Palestinian aims. An influential 2008 document by the Palestinian Strategy Group (PSG) offers important insights into the Palestinian’s strategic alternatives.

The authors of the PSG report argued that the negotiation process had proven unable to secure Palestinian demands, because Israel, as the stronger partner, had proven unwilling to make the necessary compromises for peace. The document claimed that attempts to resolve the conflict through negotiations served Israel’s interests, by perpetuating the status-quo and making the occupation easier for Israel to manage. Consequently, it rejected the existing approaches to peacemaking and promoted securing Palestinian rights with international support instead. This included promoting Palestinian rights in the context of a one-state solution that would challenge, “the existence of the State of Israel in its present form.”

There are other interpretations that argue that Israel has in fact made significant compromises in negotiations. These include, for example, the proposals made by Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008, and would claim that negotiations failed because the Palestinians have proven unwilling to face up to the compromises they would have to make for peace.

Some of the alternative approaches articulated in the 2008 PSG document can be identified in recent Palestinian policies. Since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009, at the head of a right leaning Israeli coalition, the Palestinians have evaded negotiations, which Netanyahu has repeatedly called for, and sought alternatives. In recent months the Palestinians have rejected intense international efforts to restart negotiations. This is despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making significant concessions on the terms of reference – including reportedly accepting the reference of the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations, as long as demographic changes on the ground were recognised. However, instead of negotiations the Palestinians have focussed on moving the Palestinian diplomatic struggle into the international arena. This also includes a campaign to deepen Israeli isolation internationally through boycotts and divestment.

A further step proposed by the PSG 2008 report, and now being advocated by some Palestinian officials, is for the Palestinians to consider “A radical reconfiguration (or abolition) of the PA” in the face of failed negotiations. Policy-makers in Ramallah are clearly divided over the way forward. However, under the leadership of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, over the past four years the institutions for a Palestinian state have been successfully developed on the ground. The bid for UN recognition, led by PA President Abbas, in confronting the US and Israel, risks the withdrawal of funds and endangers the viability of these nascent Palestinian institutions. Furthermore, the proposal to actively reconfigure or abolish the PA also runs counter to the state building approach.

Internal political calculations play an important role in shaping the Palestinian diplomatic strategy. Pressurising Israel on the international stage and defying international demands to return to negotiations has won Abbas, and his Fatah party, significant support among the Palestinian public. It has also permitted Fatah, at the helm of the PA, to avoid unpopular compromises, which a negotiated settlement with Israel would entail. This is particularly important given the pressure Fatah is under from Hamas, which continues to promote violent ‘resistance’ as the only way to promote Palestinian goals.

What is behind Israel’s reaction?

In responding to the Palestinian moves, the Israeli government finds itself balancing competing considerations. Following the Palestinian rejection of negotiations and its successful bid to gain membership of UNESCO, Israel felt compelled to retaliate. It did so by advancing the construction of housing units in some West Bank settlement blocs, and temporarily freezing tax transfers to the PA. The response drew inevitable criticism from the US and the European Union, but Netanyahu, like Abbas, also has to consider his domestic political audience. In recent weeks, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is competing for Netanyahu’s centre-right support base, has increased his rhetorical attacks on the Palestinian leadership and PA President Abbas.

At the same time, the temporary freeze of tax transfers drew criticism from members of the Israeli defence establishment, who argue that the money is needed to fund vital PA’s security forces. Despite increasing tensions between Jerusalem and Ramallah, IDF commanders continue to work closely with their Palestinian counterparts. Israel recently transferred anti-riot gear to the Palestinian Security Forces. Furthermore, Palestinian West Bank security forces have also arrested an increasing number of Hamas activists involved in terrorist plots in the last few months.

The improved performance of Palestinian security forces has been the basis for the reduction of IDF activities in the West Bank, leading to improved freedom of movement for Palestinians and considerable economic development. It is in Israel’s interests to see this positive momentum in the West Bank continue. However, it is unclear whether this bottom-up approach is sustainable in the long run without a top-down diplomatic effort. The Palestinian determination to avoid bilateral negotiations makes this tension increasingly difficult to resolve.

What are the repercussions for the broader diplomatic effort?

Events in recent weeks have validated many of the concerns expressed about the Palestinian unilateral bid for recognition at the UN. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow Brig.-Gen. (Rt.) Mike Herzog argued that Israel is in a “very dangerous situation in our relationship with the Palestinians, things could escalate very quickly politically and on the ground.”

Palestinian relations with the US have also deteriorated to the detriment of the financial stability of the PA and the peace process. In response to the Palestinian application for UN membership, US Congress froze for several months the transfer of approximately $200 million to the PA. This prevented many Palestinian civil servants from receiving their salaries. Another $192 million, intended for infrastructure projects, is still being withheld and could add to the PA’s financial difficulties.

The Palestinian efforts to internationalise their diplomatic struggle is also undermining America’s role as the key international broker in the process. The PA’s determination to force the Americans to use their veto in the Security Council was intended to embarrass President Obama’s administration. This risks creating a diplomatic vacuum, as no other international actor has the leverage on both parties that is required to take the US role as the key broker in the peace process.

The Palestinian diplomatic effort has exposed the extent to which the EU lacks internal cohesion on the issue, despite the efforts of Britain, France and Germany to coordinate its policy. The UNESCO vote saw a three-way split with France supporting the bid, Germany opposing it and the UK abstaining. What’s more, Britain and France are both expected to abstain in the Security Council, whilst Germany is likely to vote against.

Having proven unable to unite the international community behind its UN membership bid, or even to force the US into an embarrassing veto, the Palestinian Authority may suffer further damage to their credibility among the Palestinian public – to the benefit of Hamas and others that reject the peace process.

To prevent this deterioration, international efforts are underway to formulate a General Assembly resolution that would enable the Palestinians to claim success in their bid for recognition, without inalterably damaging the peace process. This means not prejudicing future negotiations by imposing final status terms that Israel cannot accept, or paving the way for steps that make negotiations harder to resume, such as litigation at the International Criminal Court.

A statement by Foreign Minister William Hague about the UK’s position ahead of the UN Security Council vote did not rule out British support for a General Assembly resolution, but stressed that: “We and the other countries of the EU will continue to emphasise that any proposition put to the General Assembly must make a return to negotiations more likely.” It remains unclear whether such a balance can be struck.

Conclusion

The approach advocated by some Palestinians to transform the current diplomatic framework by rejecting negotiations, internationalising the conflict and threatening to dismantle the PA risks a dangerous deterioration on the ground. A negotiated two-state solution remains the best option to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if an immediate return to negotiations is not likely, it remains important to avoid making the situation worse. This includes avoiding a reversal of the bottom up progress seen in the Palestinian Authority in recent years, and avoiding steps in international forums that will undermine the basis for a future negotiated agreement.