Last-ditch efforts by U.S. and European diplomats to turn back an appeal for statehood for Palestine at the United Nations are ongoing today. But so far they appear to have done little to deter Palestinians from a last-ditch effort of their own: an attempt to shock the long moribund Oslo Accords (negotiated in 1993) into action by taking their case directly to the world community of nations. Palestinians believe having a seat in the U.N. General Assembly may allow them to achieve what decades of negotiation has not: a two-state solution in the Middle East with actual borders defining a full and legitimate Palestinian state, an end to encroachment from Israeli settlers and an end to the Israeli occupation, administration and security measures on the West Bank. Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said Sept. 16 that he would take the Palestinian application to the U.N. Security Council, selecting a more dramatic confrontation with the council and hazarding a U.S. veto rather than seeking U.N. membership with "enhanced observer status" via a vote before the General Assembly.
In a communiqué released last week, the heads of the Christian churches in Jerusalem, including the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, reiterated their sense that “a two-state solution serves the cause of peace and justice” and that “Israelis and Palestinians must live each in their own independent states with peace, security and justice, respecting human rights, according to international law.” The Christian church leaders encouraged negotiations as "the best way to resolve all outstanding problems between the two sides.” The church leaders also urged restraint from both Palestinians and Israelis whatever the outcome of the vote at the United Nations.
On Sunday Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad met in New York with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to discuss security issues and the Palestinian Authority's readiness to govern. Palestinian leadership have not been the only ones to argue the authority’s readiness to govern; it has been endorsed by U.N. representatives and officials from both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
All the same the statehood campaign has filled both the Israeli political establishment and the U.S. State Department with dread. President Obama said last week that he would “object very strongly" to a possible push for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. He called the effort counterproductive, a "distraction" that would not solve problems that can only be addressed through negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed "the way forward" in efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to direct negotiations during a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Sunday, but declined to reveal if mediators were making progress.
The diplomatic standoff puts the Obama administration in yet another no-win situation. The long-promised and long put off statehood of the Palestinians, a cause as long suppressed by Arab regimes friendly to or dependent on the United States, is emerging as an issue of acute interest to a finally unrestrained Arab public opinion, particularly in Egypt. The Obama administration’s credibility among the nascent democratic movements of the so-call Arab Spring will take a serious blow if it is forced to stand alone in the Security Council against the Palestinian application. At the same the administration’s promise to veto Palestinian aspirations is not likely to earn President Obama any points among domestic supporters of Israel in the United States, who already find his pro-Israel bona fides fatally suspect.
The State Department argues that the statehood application is a sideshow and that true Palestinian sovereignty can only be achieved in negotiation with Israel. The Palestinian gambit seriously jeopardizes the annual aid flow from the United States to the West Bank. It’s a measure of the frustration of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian street at the lack of progress on any of the major milestones set by the Oslo “two state” agreement that they seem determined to proceed anyway.
Speaking at a presentation last week in New York sponsored by the Global Policy Forum and the NGO Working Group on Israel-Palestine, Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and Director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, said he did not expect that even a successful bid for Palestinian statehood would mean much in the short run. “Much too much has been made of this initiative,” he said. Statehood would not “lead to the end of the occupation or liberation of Palestine.... It will not lead to the monumental, earth-shaking consequences some are predicting.”
In fact the effort offers significant dangers to the Palestinian people, according to Khalidi, not only a cut-off of U.S. aid but a likely end to Israeli efforts to collect tax and other revenue on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Beyond the financial threat to a state entity already on fiscal life support, Khalidi worries that the current effort represents “a consecration of the idea that the solution to this whole question is somehow an extension of an entity that has been created in the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip.” He said the Palestinian Authority as it is currently constituted is incapable of dismantling the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. “The dynamic is in the different direction,” he said, “[toward] permanent annexation.
“Saying somehow that there is going to be a state of Palestine,” Khalidi said, “reinforces the illusion that it’s there already in embryo. It’s not there in embryo. What’s there in embryo is a greater Israel.” And members of the Israeli political establishment appear, he said, “hell bent for the continuation and completion of this process.”
“We are on the way to a one state solution created by Israel; we are not on the way to a two-state solution.” A reality, he said, which the U.N. application for statehood inherently denies. Most Palestinians live as refugees outside the occupied territories, Khalidi said, worrying over “anything that continues to delude people that the problem will be resolved with the end of the occupation.”
But other consequences of the Palestinian gambit may be positive, at least from his perspective. The U.N. appeal could mean, Khalidi said, “the breaking of the addiction of important elements of the Palestinian leadership to the narcotic of America, a dependence … on a country which has shown itself to be the most fervent and the most committed enemy of Palestinian self determination outside of Israel.”
The United States has not been a fair-handed mediator in negotiations, Khalidi charged. “The U.S. is not a broker; the U.S. is a lawyer for Israel. The United States puts its big thumb on the scales in support of the dominant party in this negotiation...and always has.
“Anything that breaks the illusion that U.S. will contribute to a fair solution is a good thing.” The loss of U.S. aid may prove a hardship for average Palestinians, Khalidi said, but similarly that aid lapse would “break the illusion that the Palestinian Authority is in any way independent; it’s not.
“It is a wholly owned and wholly controlled subsidiary of the occupation; “ he said, “It serves the occupation; it is the security force of the occupation.”
The New York Times reports that returning the question of statehood to the United Nations “constitutes a new Palestinian strategy 20 years after the start of peace negotiations with Israel, which have failed to produce an agreement.” Khalidi agrees that 20 years of negotiating has failed, but he suggests the U.N. appeal does not represent a new strategy but a return to arguably the only proper forum to resolve the long-festering dispute of land, national identity and the rights of refugees: the multilateral body of the United Nations, where during the 1970s the Palestinian Liberation Organization argued its case.
At 1991’s Madrid conference, however, the diplomatic strategy was detoured into direct negotiation with Israel as mediated by the United States. He said, “What this has represented essentially,” he said, “is moving the Palestinian question away from the United Nations, away from a multilateral international forum and into the hands of a single superpower.” It was presumed then that approach was likeliest to succeed in a national sovereignty for Palestine, but the strategy also removed the major parties away from the parameters of international law and the authority of various U.N. resolutions on Palestine. Negotiation would supersede the applicable and customary international standards on statehood and the self-determination of people. In practical terms that quickly meant U.S. political realities, not international treaties and law, began to become the basis of “direct negotiations,” Khalidi said.
As a strategy direct negotiation has clearly failed, Khalidi said. In fact, he said, it has been disastrous diversion for Palestinian national rights and the political and social conditions of most Palestinians. At the time of the Madrid agreement, no more than 100,000 or so Israeli settlers had moved into the West Bank; now more than 500,000 have created a major obstacle to a final accord. And the security measures, including separation walls, settler only road networks and security checkpoints throughout the occupied territory, put in place to protect them (and, in the case of barriers along the Green Line, to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel proper) have made daily life a series of frustration and humiliating obstacle courses for Palestinians who are often cut-off from family members, jobs, olive groves, agriculture and grazing land and educational opportunities.
“One of the things that the grain of the question of [Palestinian statehood] raises for the first time really in two decades is the idea that the United Nations is where this question should be decided,” Khalidi said, “and it is international legality and U.N. resolutions [that] should be the determinant of the outcome and not other parameters.”
Khalidi said that since Madrid the agenda brought to negotiations has been determined by the United States, following the dictates of its ally Israel.
“They weren’t peace negotiations; they weren’t negotiations to determine borders, the states of Jerusalem, the status of refugees, issues relating to water, issues relating to settlements.” Almost all the negotiations since 1991, he said, have had to do with “the modalities” of interim self-governing arrangements for the Palestinian territories under continuing Israeli occupation.
“So coming back to the United Nations means not just the idea that the Palestinians are taking an initiative for the first time in a very, very long time,” he said, “but returning from what has been worse than a detour. It’s been a disastrous reversal for the Palestinians on every level,” describing it as an effort that reflected ‘No principles, no legal basis, no international forum,’ it was “essentially a private mugging of the Palestinian side under the supervision of the United States.”