BICOM Focus: Thinking beyond September

Key points

  • The Palestinians have created domestic expectation that they will achieve Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September. Though this will not be matched by real change on the ground, the Palestinian leadership appear unable to back down.
  • The only practical route to building a Palestinian state in reality is through an agreement with Israel. If the UN endorses Palestinian maximalist positions, it makes a negotiated agreement harder to achieve, by reducing the capacity of both sides to compromise. It also risks creating frustration on the Palestinian street, which could lead to violence.
  • If the Palestinians cannot be diverted from the UN route, the EU should limit the damage. EU states must ensure that any UN resolution directs the parties back to negotiations, and does not mandate terms that are unbalanced and that Israel will not be able to accept.

What do the Palestinians want?

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has declared his intention to request international recognition of Palestine as a state on the 1967 lines at the United Nations in September, and for Palestine to be admitted as a member of the UN.

Despite Israeli-Palestinian negotiations being stalled and Palestinian division between the Hamas regime in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank, the PA leadership has built up unrealistic expectations that their state can be established in September 2011. This expectation has been fuelled to some degree by international actors. The Quartet endorsed a Palestinian two-year state-building plan created by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, which matures in August 2011. In addition, at the beginning of the aborted bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in September 2010, the US agreed with the parties that the goal was a framework agreement within one year.

In an article in the New York Times in May 2011, Abbas explained the Palestinian strategy. He declared that negotiations had failed and the Palestinians were now seeking an alternative. He wrote: ‘Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalisation of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.’

In short, the PA strategy is to use international forums to attack and isolate Israel, as an alternative to negotiating with Israel to resolve the conflict.

What does Israel want?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he wants a negotiated solution. Israel argues that the Palestinian strategy is counterproductive and has lobbied internationally to persuade states not to back the Palestinian request at the UN. How far Netanyahu is willing to go in negotiations with the Palestinians to secure an agreement remains untested, and he has said he will only set out his final status positions in direct talks with the Palestinians.

However, Netanyahu has stressed two main principles that represent Israel’s core strategic interests, and which the Palestinians must accept to make an agreement possible. The first is that Israel’s key security requirements must be met. This means agreeing on a new border which is more defensible for Israel than the 1949 to 1967 armistice lines, the non-militarisation of the Palestinian state and a security regime in the Jordan Valley which includes a long-term Israeli presence.

The second is Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. An important implication is that there can be no ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees to Israel, which if allowed would lead to the end of Israel’s Jewish majority.

Some have criticised Netanyahu’s heavy emphasis on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which they see as an unnecessary distraction. In reality, when it comes to the practical issues of preventing a large-scale influx of Palestinian refugees and preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, any Israeli government would ultimately have a similar demand. From an Israeli perspective, the essence of a conflict-ending agreement is that Israel allows the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, in return for the Palestinians renouncing claims on Israel. Though in previous rounds of negotiations, Israeli governments have contemplated accepting a small number of refugees, no Israeli government would accept an unrestricted ‘right of return’. Netanyahu, in common with many Israelis, believes that previous attempts to resolve the conflict have failed because of Palestinian unwillingness to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

What are the possible outcomes at the UN?

The Palestinian ambition to be admitted to the UN as a full member state requires UN Security Council backing, which it is unlikely to receive due to a US veto. As former Israeli negotiator Tal Becker has described in a recent paper, beyond that stage there are many possibilities for how the initiative could develop.

One is that the Security Council agrees to a resolution that addresses the conflict, perhaps by endorsing conclusions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that the Palestinians are ready for statehood, and setting out the conditions under which it will endorse Palestinian membership of the UN. These could include a negotiated agreement with Israel, and some terms of reference. So far, the US has firmly opposed dealing with the issue at the Security Council, but this could yet be a compromise solution.

An alternative is that the Palestinians pursue a resolution at the UN General Assembly, possibly invoking the ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure that has the power – with a two-thirds majority – to  make non-binding recommendations. These could include measures which legitimise boycotts of Israel. The General Assembly cannot, under UN procedures or international law, admit Palestine as a member. But it could potentially enhance Palestine’s status as an observer within the UN system, and confer some of the rights of statehood on the Palestinians in international legal forums, including the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinians can usually count on a majority in the General Assembly, thanks to the automatic support of the Muslim-majority nations and Non-Aligned Movement. However, to lend the resolution added legitimacy, they are keen to secure the support of European states, which would lead to the embarrassing diplomatic isolation of the US and Israel.

What are the dangers of a UN resolution?

1.       Complicating a negotiated resolution

Israel, backed by the US, argues that a Palestinian success in having their positions endorsed by the UN will undermine the prospects for a future negotiated agreement. This is principally because to make an agreement possible, both sides will have to show considerable flexibility on their initial demands. If the Palestinians have their maximal positions endorsed by the UN, it will make it harder for them to compromise on them in the negotiation room.

2.       Providing the Palestinians with an alternative to negotiations

As well as complicating the search for an agreement, the Palestinians will have less motivation to enter talks to begin with. They will have a wide range of alternative options to continue promoting the diplomatic and political isolation of Israel, including international legal forums. This legalistic, adversarial and zero-sum approach runs counter to the search for an agreement, which requires the two sides to reconcile competing claims through bilateral negotiations.

3.       Catalysing violence

A recent survey by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) shows a large majority of Palestinians believe that if the UN recognises Palestinian statehood on 1967 lines, the PA should then assert its sovereignty by opening roads or deploying security forces in areas of the West Bank currently under Israeli control. However, if the PA attempts to fulfill this expectation after September, it is likely to lead to dangerous confrontations with the IDF. Raising expectations on the Palestinian street of the establishment of a Palestinian state that will not be fulfilled risks creating a catalyst for demonstrations and violence. The PA has succeeded in maintaining order in the areas of the West Bank under its control in recent years. This has enhanced its claim to be ready for statehood, and has allowed Israel to considerably reduce restrictions on movement and access. This, in turn, has benefited the West Bank economy. A new wave of popular violence could reverse this.

What is the position of the UK and the EU?

UK officials and Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, have made clear their preference for a return to negotiations over attempts to address the issue at the UN.

The EU put considerable pressure on the US to agree to Quartet-endorsed terms of reference that would serve as an agreed basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The US eventually agreed, but the effort failed when the Quartet parties were unable to agree to what the terms of reference should be.

EU states have not adopted a unified position on how they would respond if a resolution on Palestinian statehood comes up for a vote. Germany and Italy have expressed opposition to any Palestinian attempt to seek statehood through the UN. France has shown greater sympathy for the idea. The UK has said it will wait to see what, if any, resolution comes before the UN.

However, British officials and ministers have expressed concerns about September. Foreign Secretary William Hague said in July: ‘The position on recognition is one that we will decide on if necessary come September, but it is far preferable for talks to resume.’ Matthew Gould, Britain’s ambassador to Israel, told the Israeli daily Maariv in July that ‘We are worried that September will be a damaging moment for the future of peace. We are worried that it will make it more difficult in the matter of the trust between the sides. We are worried that this will divert the main message that peace must come about by means of talks between the sides… If you bring into there the idea of a UN resolution about the recognition of a Palestinian state, and nothing changes on the ground, this will create a dangerous situation.’

What outcome should the EU and UK seek?

The UK should draw clear red lines over what kind of resolution it will support, based on the following principles:

  • The overall aim must be to preserve the principle that a Palestinian state can only be created through a negotiated agreement with Israel.
  • Any international initiative should be designed to establish realistic and even-handed terms of reference which balance the demands, interests and necessary concessions of both parties, and therefore give future negotiations a chance of success. A one-sided resolution endorsing Palestinian maximalist positions without protecting Israel’s core requirements will set a basis for talks that no Israeli government can accept.
  • The terms of reference set out by US President Barack Obama in his speeches to AIPAC and the State Departmentin May 2011 come closer to achieving this than the terms of reference recently proposed by the EU. Britain should explicitly endorse the Obama terms of reference, in particular that:
    • ‘The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarised state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.’
    • ‘Lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.’
    • Borders must be negotiated in a way that ‘allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.’
    • An agreement must be explicit in stating that it will ultimately ‘end the conflict and end all claims.’
  • In addition, a more realistic basis for peace would be established if the EU and US made a clear statement that a solution to the issue of refugees should be agreed, realistic and consistent with the principle of two states for two peoples.

Further Reading