In all likelihood on Thursday afternoon the UN General Assembly will agree to the request of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to change the status of Palestine at the UN from observer entity to non-member state. Aside from the Palestinians having to print a new set of headed note paper, what will this achieve? Unfortunately, for ordinary Palestinians, the answer is very little.
The Gaza Strip will remain under the rule of Hamas, Abbas’s radical, armed Islamist rivals. The Palestinian Authority which controls Palestinian population centres in the West Bank will gain no new rights or powers on the ground, something that can only be attained through agreement with Israel. Abbas knows this all too well, but he is persisting anyway. Why?
Lately he has suggested the move will help the prospects for negotiations, and that he will come back to talks once the resolution is passed. One can only hope that’s true. But as foreign secretary William Hague has argued, the move seems more likely to undermine prospects for reviving the peace process.
Not negotiating with Israel has been Abbas’s choice in recent years, whether due to his distrust for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, or due his own unwillingness to make compromises, with Hamas looking over his shoulder. The move to the UN looks more like a continuing strategy to avoid negotiations and not a way to revive them. Abbas said as much in an article he wrote 18 months ago in the New York Times in which he made clear he would use Palestine’s new status to try and confront Israel in international legal forums.
This strategy helps Abbas avoid the risks inherent in talks and will give him a much-needed domestic political win. But at the same time it will bolster those Israelis who argue that there is no Palestinian peace partner, and the domestic political gains will likely give way to more Palestinian frustration when the move fails to translate to real changes in the West Bank. Israel will not be forced to make concessions on the ground without its own legitimate concerns being addressed through negotiated trade-offs.
So is there an alternative to the Palestinian attempt to internationalise or legalise the conflict? There may be, and the key lies in the fact that behind the scenes, Israel and the PA have actually been cooperating in recent months to stave off a severe Palestinian financial crisis. Over the past six months Israel agreed to streamline the collection of tax revenues for the Palestinians, showed support for the development of Palestinian offshore gas, and even paid tax revenues in advance to help the Palestinians manage cash shortfalls. This cooperation is happening because most Israeli policy makers recognise the continuation of the bottom-up state building project led by Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad to be in Israel’s interests. It has created a relatively calm situation in the West Bank, keeping Hamas at bay there and reducing security threats to Israel.
It is this quiet cooperation to sustain the PA that shows the way in which real progress might be made. What is needed is a de-escalation of tensions, and a period in which each side commits, publicly or privately, not to take steps which antagonise the other – whether that is expanding settlements on the Israeli side or unilateral moves in international organisations or legal bodies on the Palestinian side.
When a new Israeli government is formed early next year, there may be fresh political capital for Israel to take steps to help the Palestinians substantially develop the state building programme in the West Bank. It was widely reported in the first half of 2011 that Netanyahu was considering a package of incremental measures. Options range from giving the Palestinians wider opportunity for development in parts of the West Bank currently under full Israeli control (Area C) to the establishment of a Palestinian state in interim borders. However, Israel is unlikely to make any of these steps without Palestinian assurances that they will suspend, for a significant period of time, unilateral actions in international bodies or attempted legal actions.
The Palestinians have so far been scornful of all interim proposals, painting them as Israeli stalling tactics. This is negative and self-defeating. Any interim measures should be judged by their consistency with the end goal of making a viable Palestinian state a reality. Britain, along with EU partners and the US, can play a role by legitimising this kind of approach. Positive bottom-up progress which benefits both sides will create a more promising context for resuming final status talks. That is the route to a long overdue Palestinian state that exists on the ground, and not just on headed note-paper.