'Statehood may be Pyrrhic victory for Palestinians'

Experts warn that the PA's independence campaign may backfire, costing them bargaining chips and causing Israeli retribution.

April 20, 2011 09:19
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Palestinian Flag 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Palestinian quest for statehood received seals of approval from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations in the past week, marking another advance toward the goal of winning the United Nations’ endorsement this September.

But legal and political analysts warn that the independence campaign may backfire, causing Israel to dig in its heels on future peace talks, creating problems with the US and perhaps even costing Palestinians the right to make claims on Israel in future negotiations.

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"If the Palestinians unilaterally declare statehood, what we are left with is a border dispute," Robbie Sabel, an international law expert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, told The Media Line. Among the biggest sacrifices a statehood declaration may entail is the right of return for refugees who claim homes inside Israel, he said.

The statehood drive comes as Palestinians cast about for a way to create their long-sought state. Negotiations the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority is conducting with Israel are deadlocked while in the alternative offered by Hamas, that of using military force to destroy Israel, has led to its international isolation and a blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. 

PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, set themselves a goal almost two years ago of seeking statehood unilaterally. To that end, they have worked hard to clean out government corruption and inefficiency and impose law and order in the West Bank. The PA has won backing for statehood from a handful of South American countries and is lobbying for more before the General Assembly meets.

Their efforts have been capped by an endorsement from Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. In a report submitted April 12 to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) – a Palestinian body for coordinating financial assistance to the PA – he said Palestinian government operations now meet the standards for statehood in six areas, including governance, rule of law, human rights and social protection.

Analysts said the UN endorsement, coming days after similar ones from the IMF and World Bank, should help convince the General Assembly that Palestine is ready to join the community of nations. But even Serry admitted that the PA has nearly exhausted all the areas available to it to act unilaterally and that it now needs Israel to resume peace talks. 

Israel still controls large swathes of the West Bank and controls access into and out of the region. Moreover, unlike UN Security Council decisions, resolutions in the General Assembly aren’t binding.

Palestinian officials readily admit that winning UN recognition for statement isn’t an end in itself but that it may force Israel’s hand.

"Israel has continually argued that the Palestinian Authority is unable to establish a state," a senior adviser to Fayyad told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. "This report proves otherwise. Now it is time for the world to translate the report into actions."

Ghassan Al-Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said engaging Israel is still a priority for the PA, but expressed doubt this would happen as long as Israel continued building in areas claimed for a future state and "consolidating the occupation." Statehood will act to push Israel further into the corner by upgrading the Palestinians’ status and showing they are a responsible partner that can deliver.

"The main obstacle to negotiations is Israel's settlement policy," Al-Khatib told The Media Line. "Israel cannot negotiate in good faith and continue building settlements."

Nathan Brown, a political scientist specializing in Arab politics at George Washington University in the US, agreed, saying the Palestinians had no choice but to reach a negotiated settlement with Israel.

"I think unilateralism is a tactic rather than a strategy for the Palestinians," Brown told The Media Line. "At this moment they see no prospects of meaningful peace negotiations with the current Israeli government or the American administration. So they are garnering international support to put pressure on Israel and the US."

Israel is indeed worried about the fallout from Palestinian independence. Last week, the Ha’aretz daily reported that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is weighing a plan for a partial withdrawal of Israeli military forces from the West Bank to alleviate pressure on Israel.

But Sabel and other analysts warned there would also be a price to pay for winning UN endorsement for a Palestinian state.

“The result will be the opposite of what the Palestinians want: forcing the United States to oppose Palestinians’ efforts, energizing Congress to restrict much-needed assistance to Palestinian institution-building, and probably prompting Israel to do very real (and dumb) things on the ground,” Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for the US State Department and now a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, said in a Washington Post opinion piece April 14.

The US has contributed to the billions of dollars in foreign aid that the PA has received over the past four years and has played a major role in professionalizing its security forces.

White House Middle East Adviser Dennis Ross said two weeks ago that Washington was "firmly opposed" to a unilateral declaration of statehood through the UN. Meanwhile, Israel's Foreign Ministry, joined by Jewish lobbying organizations in the US, has launched a campaign to forestall recognition of a Palestinian state.

Aside from the right of return, the Palestinians would face significant negotiating problems if they wished to act entirely independently of Israel, said Sabel of The Hebrew University.

"A unilateral declaration would be a violation of the Oslo peace accords," he told The Media Line, referring to the 1993 agreement that forms the basis 18 years later for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. "Then there is the question of territory. Will this state control the Gaza Strip? East Jerusalem?"

An answer to that question was provided last week by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh Al-Maliki. In an interview with Ma’an radio station, Al-Maliki said the PA intended to declare an independent state on the 1967 borders, including east Jerusalem, by September.

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