- Given the challenges facing the Palestinian-Israeli diplomatic process, attention is turning toward the possible adoption by the Palestinian Authority of a far-reaching policy of unilateralism, and speculation is growing about a unilateral declaration of statehood.
- Evidence has emerged of a split between the Fatah leadership and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad over the pace, timing, and possibly over the principle of unilateralism.
- The Israeli government remains committed to a negotiated solution between the sides. It opposes all international recognition of Palestinian unilateral moves, seeing these as prejudicing the chances of renewed negotiations, by giving the Palestinians an alternative to negotiations.
- Nevertheless, there are those in Israel who argue that ‘coordinated’ unilateralism, involving both Israeli and Palestinian moves, might offer a way beyond the current impasse.
- However far the Palestinian unilateral strategy develops, real Palestinian independence on the ground can only be achieved through some form of agreement with Israel.
Introduction: The search for a plan B
The diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians has not advanced the sides towards agreement in the past two years. The Palestinian insistence on a comprehensive settlement moratorium has made renewed direct talks in the immediate future unlikely. US officials are conducting parallel talks on core issues with the sides, but there is limited optimism regarding the possibility of these bearing early fruit. In the absence of progress in negotiations, the Palestinian Authority has increased its focus on an alternative strategy of unilateral diplomacy.
The PA is currently promoting a draft UN resolution condemning Israeli West Bank settlement activity, against the wishes of the US, who remain committed to brokering an agreement between the sides. More broadly, the Ramallah-based authority is energetically seeking to expand the already considerable circle of countries who have recognised a Palestinian state along the June 1967 borders. Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay have already done so. According to Palestinian officials, Chile and Paraguay are expected to follow. More than 100 states are said to have recognised a Palestinian state since the PLO’s symbolic declarations of independence, made in Algiers in 1988.
In Europe, by contrast, no country has yet afforded official recognition to a Palestinian state. However, a number of European countries have begun to upgrade the level of Palestinian diplomatic representation in their capitals. Britain is currently considering such a move. The European measures, unlike those taken by the Latin American countries, do not constitute recognition of Palestinian statehood at this stage. At the EU Foreign Affairs Council in December, EU Foreign Ministers reiterated their position that the EU stands ready to recognise a Palestinian state at the appropriate time. At the same time they renewed their support for US led diplomacy towards a negotiated solution.
However, these various diplomatic gestures towards the Palestinians contribute to a sense of diplomatic momentum in the direction of international recognition of Palestinian statehood. This is contributing to media speculation that the PA is adopting a strategy leading toward a unilateral declaration of independence. Is this indeed the case? What are the various options available to the PA in the current climate of diplomatic stalemate, and what are the varying Israeli views regarding the potential danger or benefit of a Palestinian turn toward unilateralism?
Palestinian unilateral options
A December 2009 paper attributed to the PLO-Negotiations Affairs Department (PLO-NAD) outlined a menu of possible options available to the Palestinians in the absence of progress in negotiations. It appears that the West Bank Palestinian leadership is now pursuing some of these options, but there are indications of internal disagreements among senior officials, and little evidence of a unified strategy.
The options in the PLO strategy paper include seeking recognition by the UN Security Council of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Alternatively, the document suggested that support could be sought at the UNSC for the 1967 borders, along with other core issue parameters, to be the basis for the solution of the conflict. Yet another alternative was a UNSC endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative. Other options listed in the paper included seeking international recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and urging the US to propose solutions on the core issues.
In parallel, in August 2009, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad issued a two year plan for building the institutions of a Palestinian state. Fayyad’s plan, and its timetable, was accepted by the international Quartet.
However, in a recent interview with Israel’s Channel 2 news, Fayyad explicitly rejected a unilateral declaration of independence, saying, “We are not looking for a unilateral declaration of statehood… What is that going to really do in terms of our capacity to have a state? We are looking for a state.”
This statement appeared to expose rifts between Fayyad, an independent politician, and leaders of the dominant Fatah party in the West Bank. The Saudi-based Sharq al Awsat newspaper recently quoted Fatah sources as saying that Fayyad’s statements were ‘unacceptable, incomprehensible and surprising,’ and contradicted the efforts to gain international recognition for a state.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close advisor to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, recently overtly endorsed the idea of a unilateral declaration of statehood, saying that “We are working to ensure the backing of as many countries as possible [for the unilateral declaration] before the next session of the UN General Assembly.” Rabbo criticised the US Administration for opposing the idea.
It is not entirely clear if the dispute between Fayyad and the Fatah leadership on this issue is over the principle of unilateralism, or over its timing. Fayyad has not made clear, for example, what he would favour if agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state cannot be reached by summer 2011, his target for the realisation of Palestinian sovereignty.
There is also a certain paradox in the Fatah leadership’s position. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has consistently opposed an interim agreement with Israel that would create a Palestinian state on temporary borders, leaving the disagreements over core issues to be addressed later. Abbas argues that such an accord would be used by Israel to relieve pressure and avoid further concessions on core issues. Yet seeking international recognition of Palestinian statehood, in advance of a negotiated agreement with Israel, appears in some ways to be moving in the same direction. The potential outcome would be an interim Palestinian state that is established prior to resolving the core issues of the conflict.
In reality however, the outcome of a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, which is not coordinated with Israel, seems unlikely to achieve even this result. Whilst the PA has autonomy in sections of the West Bank, Israel retains overall control. Meanwhile Hamas is in complete control of the Gaza Strip. Given these conditions on the ground, no amount of declarations by any party will provide the Palestinian Authority the capacity for independence and self-determination. Unilateral declarations can, at best, build international pressure on Israel, international support for Palestinian negotiating positions, and give Abbas something to show for his diplomatic efforts. But the tangible attributes of independence that the Palestinians seek can only be gained with Israel’s cooperation or acquiescence. This cooperation depends on Israeli concerns also meeting met.
Israeli responses: a parallel Israeli unilateralism?
The Palestinian turn towards unilateral options has led to divisions among the PA leadership, and does not yet appear to form part of a coordinated strategy. Within Israel too, there are a range of views on Palestinian unilateralism. Prime Minister Netanyhu has declared it support for the creation of a Palestinian state, but only as part of a negotiated peace agreement. The official Israeli position is that any Palestinian unilateral efforts come at the expense of US attempts to revive the negotiating process, and are thus counterproductive.
Israel does not want the Palestinians to get the impression that there is a diplomatic alternative to negotiations with Israel. They want third parties to convey a consistent message that the Palestinians should return to direct negotiations without preconditions. Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently said he is ready to enter into closed room discussions with President Abbas until ‘white smoke emerges’.
There is a feeling in Israel that the Palestinian side is not interested in facing up to the difficult compromises required by negotiations, and rather prefers to pursue a strategy of securing international pressure on Israel. From this perspective, recognition of a Palestinian state, and even upgrading the status of its diplomatic missions, rewards this policy, giving the PA a cause to escalate it. The Israeli government also opposes international recognition of the 1967 borders, which it believes prejudges a future negotiated agreement on borders.
However, it is not clear what Israel’s response would be if the Palestinians were to attempt a unilateral declaration of statehood. Netanyahu told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence committee on Monday 3 January that Israel has an ‘arsenal of possible responses’ to Palestinian unilateral moves, without specifying what they might be.
Whilst the Israeli government opposes Palestinian unilteralism, there are those in Israel who welcome swift progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state prior to a final status agreement. They tend to be those who fear the greater consequence of not realising a two state reality, which may result in increasing pressure towards a one-state solution. It is argued by some in Israel that if coordinated with parallel Israeli steps, Palestinian unilateralism could have a positive effect.
Gidi Grinstein, for example, who heads the Tel Aviv based Reut think tank, advocates an approach of ‘coordinated unilateralism.’ Grinstein argues that the split between Fatah and Hamas, and the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on key issues, make either a permanent status accord or a long term interim accord difficult to negotiate. Instead, Grinstein suggests a set of back-to-back unilateral Israeli and Palestinian actions. These would lead to the PA reaching de facto statehood, declaring it and receiving de jure recognition by Israel, the US, Arab countries and the UN. Grinstein suggests a series of Israeli moves to accompany Palestinian unilateralism, including the transfer of further territory in Area C to PA control, and the lifting of various restrictions on international activity by the PA.
One of Israel’s most prominent political scientists, Professor Shlomo Avineri has recently described the possibility of a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence as a ‘real game changer’. He argues that it would help to make the conflict more ‘normal’. Rather than a dispute between occupier and occupied, it would be one between two rival states.
Other Israelis advocate various forms of Israeli unilateralism that would enable the Palestinians to have greater control in the West Bank. Knesset members from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own Likud party, Michael Eitan and Dan Meridor, have reportedly expressed themselves in favour of the unilateral evacuation of some settlements by Israel, similar to the pullout from Gaza in 2005.
Others have advocated trying to reach an interim agreement on Palestinian statehood in part of the West Bank, as a stage towards final status talks. Influential commentator Ehud Ya’ari recently argued that while disagreements over core issues have prevented the achievement of a final status accord, failure to bring any progress could lead to Palestinian abandonment of the two-state solution. Former Defence Minister, Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, also advocates moving swiftly to the creation of an interim Palestinian state.
The PA Ramallah leadership appears split regarding at least the pace, and possibly the entire strategy of unilateralism. Yet with the diplomatic process apparently at a logjam, Palestinian efforts to secure international pressure on Israel look set to continue. A wide ranging debate is taking place on this issue in Israel, with some support for a parallel Israeli unilateralism being expressed.
However, without some coordination between the sides, it is hard to see how a symbolic declaration of Palestinian independence would have any more impact than the PLO’s declaration of independence in 1988. To gain a state that delivers genuine Palestinian independence and self-determination, will require agreement with Israel, whether that be an interim agreement, or a final status accord. Such agreements will require that the legitimate demands of both sides be addressed.