SIX weeks ago I suggested that the Palestinian move to seek United Nations (UN) membership could lead to aMiddle Eastgame change. Some readers scoffed at the idea, as tends to happen whenever one writes about theMiddle East. But that is indeed what is happening, as became clear when the Palestinians revealed a changed strategy at the UN last week.
Initially, the Palestinians’ plan was not to make a direct application for full membership to the UN Security Council in the face of aUSannouncement that it would veto such a move. To avoid a head-on clash with theUS, they planned instead to make a more modest application to the General Assembly, where there is no veto, for an upgrading ofPalestineto “observer status” in the UN.
But on Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas switched strategy and made his pitch to the Security Council, knowing that even if he won a majority vote his application would not survive aUS veto. In other words, he deliberately went for the head-on clash with theUS in the knowledge that the veto would seriously embarrass President Barack Obama and that he would risk alienating the country that has long been the principal mediator in the conflict withIsrael.
Why? The answer has to be that Abbas wanted to discredit theUSas an impartial mediator in this conflict.
His new strategy is to try to internationalise the Palestinian cause by breaking away from the futile pattern of bilateral negotiations under unilateralUS direction.
In his vauntedCairospeech to the Muslim world two years ago, Obama declared that “the situation of the Palestinian people is intolerable”, that Palestinians had a right to live in a state of their own and that “it is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true”. But Obama has since then become boxed in politically, facing a tight re-election fight in which he dare not risk angering the powerful Israeli lobby in theUS. So he has done an about-turn with his announcement that he will veto the Palestinians’ application to have their state recognised. It illustrates the extent to whichIsraelhas become a domestic political issue in theUS, leaving it unable to act decisively.
Abbas now wants to move away from the failed strategy of armed struggle and the frozen “peace process” and try to ride the wave of the Arab Spring to achieve greater recognition through diplomatic action and what he calls “peaceful resistance”.
His next step, I suspect, will be to seek “observer status” in the General Assembly, hoping to win a landslide vote of about 140 of the 193 member states and gain further status and leverage through access to institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the International Monetary Fund. The overall aim is to isolateIsraelwithin a transformedMiddle East— and then maybe return to the negotiating table.
Already Abbas has succeeded in boosting his own image. Throughout his seven years as president of the Palestinian Authority he has appeared as a little grey man totally lacking in charisma. But last Friday he erupted with unaccustomed passion and indignation, saying Israel was acting with impunity, ignoring hundreds of UN resolutions, making normal life for Palestinians impossible with constant harassment and obstruction and continuing to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank, which were “destroying the chances of achieving a two-state solution”.
Echoing the cry of the early Zionists, Abbas declared that “the time has come to end the suffering and plight of Palestinian refugees in the homeland and the diaspora, to end their displacement and to realise their rights, some of them forced to take refuge more than once in different parts of the world. At a time when the Arab people affirm their quest for democracy — the Arab Spring — the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence.”
Rapturous crowds in the Palestinian capital of Ramallah cheered Abbas’s words as thousands watched him on big outdoor TV screens. They waved banners bearing his picture. For the first time since Yasser Arafat’s death seven years ago, these Palestinians seemed to have found a leader who could inspire them with a revived spirit of nationalism and unity.
For his part, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed almost to justify the Palestinian frustration at the futility of theUS-brokered “peace process” by insisting that the very idea of a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries was unacceptable for security reasons.
Withdrawing from the occupied territories was too risky, Netanyahu said, asIsrael’s withdrawal fromGaza had shown. It had not calmed the “Islamic storm.”
“To defend itself,Israelmust maintain a long-term military presence in critical strategic areas in theWest Bank,” he said.
Whether the new Palestinian strategy will advance their cause remains to be seen, but Abbas’s initiative has driven home the fact that the old US -mediated process is going nowhere and that a continuation of the status quo is intolerable.
Some Israelis fear that the arousing of Palestinian expectations could lead to new waves of violence if Abbas’s UN bid yields no tangible results.
Distinguished Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, who is the chief political columnist and editorial writer for the daily Haaretz newspaper, has speculated on the possibility of an even more startling outcome if the Palestinians reach the conclusion that they are never going to get anywhere, that the occupation is going to continue and the settlements go on expanding. The Palestinian leadership, he suggests, may then seriously consider dissolving the Palestinian Authority and allow the West Bank to once again becomeIsrael’s responsibility.
In that event, he says, the Palestinians might turn to the UN with a new request: that after 44 years of occupation, they are de facto residents under Israeli sovereignty and should therefore receive Israeli citizenship.
Such a move would bury the two-state solution and confrontIsrael with its worst nightmare — of being numerically swamped by Arabs.
That was former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s big worry, which is why he removed Israeli settlements fromGazaand was contemplating removing some from theWest Bankwhen he suffered his incapacitating stroke five years ago.
Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, seems to have anticipated such a possibility with a recent proposal that all citizens, including Israeli Arabs, should be required to swear a loyalty oath toIsrael as a Jewish state.
Another proposal, from the opposition Kadima Party, is for a basic law definingIsraelas the Jewish homeland with Hebrew as the only official language.
Both are clearly aimed at heading off any possibility ofIsrael becoming a binational state. But, as Eldar points out, neither proposal provides an answer to the question of how a state with a 40% Palestinian population could maintain a Jewish character by democratic means.
In the final analysis, it seems to me the outcome of Abbas’s new initiative is ultimately going to be determined by how the turbulent Arab Spring plays itself out, particularly with the likely emergence of more hostile positions by two key former Israeli supporters inEgyptandTurkey. Overall, it’s a whole new ball game.