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The View from Israel: As the UN Prepares to Admit Palestine as a State...

Ron Skolnik
May 21, 2011

Hang around political and diplomatic circles in Israel and Palestine these days and the phrase you’ll hear on everyone’s lips is “September 2011,” a month that is likely to mark a revolutionary new phase in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The dozens of political figures with whom I met during Meretz USA’s recent study trip to Israel and Palestine were generally unwilling to go on record regarding the specific developments they predicted. There was consensus, however, that Israel and Palestine post-“September 2011” will look vastly different from the reality we have come to know.

“September 2011” is policy-wonk shorthand for the convening of the sixty-sixth regular session of the United Nations General Assembly, from the 13th until the 30th of that month. Most General Assembly sessions go by without leaving much of an impression (except, perhaps, on the traffic-snarled denizens of New York City) — but the upcoming sixty-sixth is shaping up to be different, since it is expected to endorse the admission of the State of Palestine as a member state of the United Nations, over and against the vehement opposition of the government of Israel.

To fully understand the significance of “September 2011,” it is necessary to go back to a different September, that of 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the “Declaration of Principles” and shook hands on the White House lawn to officially kick off the Israeli-Palestinian quest for peace known as the “Oslo Process.” It was based on the principle of mutually-agreed confidence-building measures that would gradually cool off the overheated conflict and prepare the two sides for the major bilateral concessions required for a full and comprehensive final-status agreement.

Sadly, the reality never lived up to that promise. Construction in Israel’s settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza not only continued but expanded. Extremists, primarily Palestinian but Jewish-Israeli as well, resorted to indiscriminate violence in order to block the path laid out by the Oslo negotiators. In Israel, visions of peace quickly crumbled as an incitement campaign engineered by Israel’s expansionist right against Prime Minister Rabin and the other “Oslo criminals” led to Rabin’s assassination by a national-religious fanatic in November, 1995. Within seven months, a series of horrible Palestinian suicide bombings dramatically changed the mood of the Israeli electorate and brought about the election of the peace-skeptic Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud, whose policy of “reciprocity” (unilaterally setting out a series of tests and milestones that the Palestinian Authority was required to meet before Israel would freeze settlements or seriously negotiate) served to flash-freeze the once-vibrant Oslo process.

The fifteen years since Netanyahu’s election have witnessed a series of frustrating fits-and-starts in the peace talks. Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat got close to an agreement in 2000-01 through the mediation of Bill Clinton, but ultimately fell short, leading to the second intifada and the collapse of Barak’s governing coalition. Ariel Sharon established an important precedent when he uprooted Israel’s Gaza settlements in 2005, but his unilateral approach also included a rejection of the Palestinian Authority as a credible negotiating partner. This shut down the possibility of real negotiations, discredited Palestinian moderates and contributed to Hamas’ growing electoral strength and eventual military takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas briefly restored color to the peace process in 2007-’08, getting closer to a final agreement than ever before. But corruption charges felled Olmert and led to the 2009 election that returned Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office at the helm of a hawkish, hard-right government.

Netanyahu’s repeat performance coincided with the election of Barack Obama in the U.S. Obama sought to replace a Bush-era indifference to Israeli-Palestinian peace with renewed presidential activism, but the last two-plus years of intense diplomatic efforts have failed to breathe new life into the moribund negotiating process. Still, his early efforts actually gave reason for hope. When the Palestinian Authority decided that they could no longer hold talks while Israel used settlements to tighten its grip on the West Bank, Obama managed to achieve a ten-month limited settlement moratorium starting in November 2009. But the negotiations, which resumed last summer, quickly ground to a halt when Israel’s government refused an American request to extend the moratorium for an additional three months — even in return for an extra $3.5 billion in American military aid.

Israel’s restart of major settlement construction last autumn was a watershed for the Palestinian Authority. Whatever limited confidence Palestinian negotiators had in Netanyahu’s intentions now disappeared, and their early faith in President Obama’s willingness and ability to sway the Israeli government now seemed naïve and misplaced.

Palestinian Authority President Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, two moderates committed to non-violent state-building, were in a bind. Had they agreed to resume negotiations while settlements were expanding, they would have lost face among their people, especially if negotiations with Netanyahu bogged down and failed to produce results. This was likely, of course: Netanyahu had begun his second term as prime minister by publicly declaring that he was in no way obliged by the offers made to the Palestinians by his predecessor, Olmert. Peace talks, Netanyahu suggested, would have to start from square one.

On the other hand, facing a stiff ongoing challenge from Hamas, Palestinian moderates did not have the option of standing pat. Hamas has argued consistently that concessions from Israel can only be wrung through violence, while Abbas and Fayyad have staked their reputations on the opposite claim, that violence is a strategic error and that the occupation can be ended and statehood achieved via diplomacy. With settlement construction back in full swing and the peace talks on indefinite hiatus, the moderate government based in Ramallah could now cite little evidence to validate its strategic approach. The only non-violent route remaining for the Palestinian Authority was to temporarily bypass American-mediated negotiations and take the Palestinian case to the international community. At the same time, the PA was resolved to build its institutional capacity to assume the responsibilities of statehood.

Diplomatic efforts in this direction began late in 2010, with the Palestinians scoring a series of diplomatic victories in South America, where country after country recognized Palestine as defined by the 1967 borders (East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a similar announcement in January, and the European Union, including Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, have signaled a clear readiness to issue their recognition announcements “when appropriate.” All told, between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and fifty countries now either recognize Palestinian statehood or are expected to adopt that position this year.

In September, barring a swift and dramatic diplomatic breakthrough, a game-changing request will thus be submitted to the UN Security Council: to recommend a General Assembly vote admitting the State of Palestine as a UN member state within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. The necessary two-thirds majority in the General Assembly is already assured.

What is not yet clear is whether the U.S. will use its veto power to block a Council recommendation, which the Assembly requires before proceeding to a membership vote. Should the U.S. refrain from vetoing, Palestine will enter the UN and Israel will be considered a member-state that is occupying a fellow member-state — the same status held by Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Israel, in other words, would be exposed to UN-mandated economic sanctions, or, theoretically, international military force.

Even if the U.S. blocks Palestine’s official admission, Israel will by no means be out of the woods. In such a case, the General Assembly is likely to invoke its seldom-used “Uniting for Peace” provision (UNGA 377 [PDF]), enacted in 1950, which allows the convening of an “emergency special session” of the General Assembly in cases where the Security Council, “because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”

The “emergency special session” would then be empowered to issue “appropriate recommendations to [UN] Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary.”

No one believes, of course, that Israel will be invaded later this year by an army of blue-helmeted UN troops. Even economic sanctions aren’t likely to gain crucial U.S. support any time soon. What is clear, however, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to enter a new era of internationalization, in which the bilateral mechanisms of the Oslo days will soon be a fading memory.

Judging from my conversations in Israel and Palestine, this will mean a sharp escalation in Israel’s international isolation. Although not expected at first to include the U.S., a serious erosion of European Union ties with Israel is definitely considered possible. It would also come as no surprise should the new State of Palestine take the lead in the effort to impose a global boycott and divestment campaign (BDS) on Israel. To date, the Palestinian Authority has rejected the idea of “global BDS” and limited itself to calls for boycotts of products made in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Once it becomes a sovereign nation under occupation, however, Palestine may up the ante should Israel refuse to accede to the anticipated international calls to freeze its settlement activity and return to the bargaining table on the basis of the 1967 lines.

The Israeli government is currently deliberating its response to these developments. The loudest public warning to date has been issued by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who predicted a “political tsunami” for Israel if the country fails to quickly lay out a bold diplomatic initiative. Hopefully, Netanyahu will surprise the world by choosing a settlement freeze and a credible peace offer that embraces the State of Palestine as a welcome neighbor. More desperate reactions are also being considered, however, such as the unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank in the wake of a UN vote, an act certain to increase Israel’s growing isolation among the community of nations.

It is no exaggeration to say that Israel’s future depends on its choosing carefully and wisely in the months ahead.

Ron Skolnik is executive director of Meretz USA for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace, a non-profit organization that supports a genuine peace between the State of Israel and its neighbors (including the Palestinian people) based on a negotiated land-for-peace solution. Meretz, USA, which until recently published the journal Israel Horizons, will be conducting the Jewish Currents “View from Israel” column throughout the year to come.