“The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel has lasted for more than 3,500 years... Our right to build our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: This is the homeland of the Jewish people, this is where our identity was forged...
“But we must also tell the truth in its entirety: Within this homeland lives a large Palestinian community. We do not want to rule over them, we do not want to govern their lives, we do not want to impose either our flag or our culture on them.
“In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other...
“If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”
– Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Bar-Ilan University, June 14, 2009
Three months ago, The Israel Project, a nonprofit educational organization, arranged a focus group among east Jerusalem Arabs to gauge attitudes on a range of subjects including the notion of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. “Generally, participants regarded the idea as a joke,” recalls Shimrit Meir, the former Army Radio Arab Affairs correspondent who runs TIP’s Arabic Media Program, “and they considered that any Palestinian leader who was pushing it was something of a clown.”
Two weeks ago, TIP held two more focus groups, in Ramallah this time, involving about 50 Palestinians – one group with high school diplomas and monthly salaries of over NIS 4,000, and another from a lower socio-economic level. “These groups now took the idea far more seriously. There’s no doubt that momentum is growing and expectations are rising,” says Meir. “The leadership is telling the people this is what they’re planning, and the people are coming to regard a declaration of statehood as important, even though they know it won’t automatically bring a Palestinian state. They want that sense of moral support from the world.”
The Palestinian leadership is indeed stressing the push for a UN-endorsed, September declaration of Palestinian statehood. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been speaking about dismantling the PA and retiring to spend time with his grandchildren if nothing substantive has been achieved by then. And officials close to him have been briefing the Palestinian media about the importance of international recognition – recognition that would fundamentally change the dynamic in subsequent negotiations with Israel.
While senior PA officials, including Abbas and his Foreign Minister Riad Malki, still pay lip service to the ostensible desire for a substantive bilateral breakthrough before the UN General Assembly convenes in September, one which might remove the purported imperative for unilateral action, other Palestinian sources have been indicating for months that the “peace process,” as we have known it since 1993, is over, and that, as should have been obvious from Abbas’s refusal to return to the table for the first nine months of Israel’s 10- month West Bank settlement freeze, the Palestinians are not ever coming back to the talks in any remotely similar framework.
Indeed, it is understood that another senior PA figure recently briefed senior Palestinian journalists to this effect, and indicated, too, that the Palestinian leadership intends to foster a campaign of nonviolent protest against Israel in the months leading up to the General Assembly. There’s talk of boycotting Israeli goods – not only settlement goods – and of demonstrations and marches from mid-May toward certain settlements, for instance, or in east Jerusalem.
Among the hoped-for effects of such a campaign would be a restoration of world interest in the Palestinians. Participants in the Ramallah survey groups sounded rather offended by the global focus on the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and beyond – a little like spoiled children, “who had gotten used to being the center of attention, aren’t anymore, and want to be again,” says Meir.
At the same time, she adds, “there was no enthusiasm whatsoever” for dramatic moves on the ground to regain that attention. “They have stability in the West Bank now,” she notes. “And they like it. In previous focus groups, we’d hear a lot about the need to remove checkpoints. That’s not the issue it was. There’s been a shift. They feel the ‘occupation’ far less. It’s almost virtual. And they don’t want a return to instability. They don’t want a new violent intifada. They don’t even want a nonviolent intifada.”
ISRAELI DIPLOMATS liken the strategizing, the tactical forays, the bluffing and the doublebluffing over the Palestinian moves toward a unilateral declaration of statehood to a game of poker. Except that it’s anything but a game.
Two weeks after I quoted Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, warning of what she said were the recently internalized dangers of the Palestinians invoking UN General Assembly Resolution 377 to give added weight to the statehood bid – the so-called “Uniting for Peace” resolution – officials here insist they have long been alive to the potential use of that nonbinding but still potentially significant resolution.
They don’t think passage of a vote involving 377 and endorsing Palestinian statehood with a big majority in the General Assembly this September will prompt nations to impose drastic new sanctions or markedly ratchet-up pressure on Israel. But they know it will give the Palestinians a sense of momentum, may prompt new efforts by the Palestinians to gain state-style acceptance in various international forums, and could prompt intensified boycott campaigns.
John Bolton, the Bush administration’s ambassador to the UN, also takes a relatively sanguine view. “This whole General Assembly tactic, including ‘Uniting for Peace,’” he told me in a telephone interview, “is all blue smoke and mirrors. Yes, it does have a political consequence, but I’m not so pessimistic,” he said. “Remember in 1988, the PLO declared a state. They insisted that their name plate be changed at the UN to Palestine. Sixty-80 countries recognized Palestine or the declaration at the time.
“But then the PLO overplayed its hand,” he recalled. “It tried to get into the World Health Organization and UNESCO and other international forums, and that’s where I stepped in; we stopped them. That declaration of statehood hasn’t changed anything. Resolution 377” – which can be invoked when the permanent members of the Security Council cannot find unanimity, and which can involve recommendations for “collective measures” by supportive nations when there is deemed to be a threat to peace – “does give them another arrow in their quiver. But apart from [its use when first approved with respect to] Korea in the 1950s, it hasn’t amounted to much.”
I’ve spoken to a lot of people about how the statehood for Palestine effort might play out in the coming weeks and months, and it’s clear that there are innumerable options: Trying the Security Council first and then the General Assembly; going to the GA first, getting overwhelming support and then going back to the Security Council to at least embarrass the vetoing Americans; eschewing the Security Council altogether; framing a “gentle” resolution on statehood to get as many “yes” votes as possible in the GA; framing a more “extreme” resolution that paints Israel in a darker light...
Since the Palestinians, selfevidently, are not entitled to present their own resolutions, much, too, will depend on the agendas of the states via which they act. The Palestinians are split themselves. The Arab states are split, too, and unprecedentedly unstable. Traditionally, the likes of Syria, Libya and Algeria have pulled to the extremes when drafting anti-Israel resolutions, and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and, sometimes, the Saudis have pushed back. Who knows how these and other forces may be arrayed come September? So many possibilities.
Israeli diplomats insist that they are preparing for all of them, and it’s evident that they do not want to broadcast exaggerated concern. They are “engaging” with the United States’ diplomatic hierarchy, so that they can work together to confront the various scenarios. They’re also developing a strategy that involves a focus on the 27 European Union members – often regarded as a kind of barometer of authority and common sense in the diplomatic community – and they note that the 27 EU votes really reflect about 40 UN votes, because countries such as Canada, Japan and Switzerland tend to mirror EU voting patterns.
They believe, incidentally, that Judge Richard Goldstone’s new “reconsideration” of his committee’s war crimes accusations against Israel will have no impact whatsoever on the “irresponsible” nations, but that it might give more “responsible” nations pause when next they consider resolutions hostile to Israel. In that respect, Goldstone’s belated recognition that Israel does not deliberately kill civilians after all, and that it is willing and able to conduct its own investigations into alleged crimes, is significant. It strengthens the contention that the rush to judgment against Israel by so many UN bodies reflects an anti-Israel obsession that ultimately discredits the UN itself. Next time, if there is a next time, the UN Human Rights Council that established the Goldstone Committee will doubtless behave no differently, but the secretary-general, for instance, reminded of Goldstone’s reversal, just might.
FOR ALL the disquiet in the run-up to the February 18 Security Council vote on settlements, and the lack of certainty until the eleventh hour that the US was indeed going to use its veto, Israeli diplomats claim to be satisfied with the US performance in “UN world.”
That veto, it is pointed out here, was imposed even though US policy was sympathetic with the anti-settlement motion. Washington will plainly find it far easier, if necessary, to veto a Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood. Such a resolution, after all, would run entirely counter to US policy, which aims for the establishment of Palestine on the basis of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, not international imposition.
Bolton, too, is adamant that, while “there was a time when it looked as though the Obama administration might abstain or even vote in favor” of Palestinian statehood at the Security Council, “that’s probably dead now... They heard from Congress loud and clear that being ambiguous – which is what they wanted to do – simply encourages mischief. And there was no political upside with the Arab world in remaining ambiguous.”
In contrast to the poker-faced Israeli diplomats, with their professed contented talk about the administration, however, the no-nonsense ex-ambassador is withering about Washington’s stance. He stresses that “the General Assembly has become so frivolous. That’s not a good thing.” He stresses that “it’s clearer now than it was in the 1950s that only the Security Council matters.” He stresses that while a statehood resolution in the GA “could have some negative impact, it would quickly fade.” And yet he wishes the Obama administration would take a more robust approach to marginalize what he calls Palestinian theatrics.
“It would be better if the US administration stood up on its hind legs and said the right thing, which this administration is not inclined to do,” Bolton said.
The “right thing” being? “What you need is a diplomatic offensive to reiterate a 63-year-old truth: Real peace will not be achieved via theatrics but via negotiations. You can fiddle about as much as you like in New York, but it’s not going to get you anywhere.”
AWARE OF the dangers of a diplomatic vacuum – specifically that if Israel and the Palestinians are not talking, other players will try to impose themselves and their “solutions” – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been widely reported to be contemplating a “Bar-Ilan II” speech. Though he has never committed himself to doing any such thing, it has been repeatedly suggested that he will make a landmark address, perhaps to Congress, perhaps at the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby’s annual policy conference in Washington in late May, fleshing out his hitherto skeletal “vision” of Palestinian statehood.
The vacuum is indeed dangerous. But if a nonviolent protest campaign against Israel, presumably to be launched to coincide with Independence Day in mid-May, gathers momentum, an intended dramatic end-of-May prime ministerial address may come too late.
Indeed, representatives of the Middle East Quartet – the US, EU, Russia and the UN – are contemplating launching some kind of new initiative as early as next week, possibly, it is feared in Jerusalem, via a statement urging a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with agreed upon land swap adjustments. George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, writing in The Weekly Standard this week, noted that while “the EU is leading this Quartet effort,” every Israeli official with whom he spoke on a recent visit “said the United States is waving the Europeans on and hiding behind them.” However, Abrams considered it “impossible” that the Quartet would endorse “1967 borders,” since the “Americans and even the Europeans understand this would put the Western Wall inside Palestine, an absurd result.”
There is, of course, nothing that Netanyahu could conceivably offer in a landmark address that would deter the Palestinian leadership from its unilateral course, and nothing that he could conceivably say that would satisfy the Palestinian public, as the TIP Ramallah focus groups reconfirmed. Asked what they would want from a new Israeli prime ministerial plan, reports Meir, respondents called for a declaration recognizing a Palestinian state in the pre- 1967 lines, expressed their opposition to settlements, demanded the removal of the security barrier and urged the release of prisoners. (Interestingly, respondents didn’t mention the “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.)
And yet, despite the rejection it would garner from the Palestinians, several of the sources I’ve spoken to in recent weeks have said Netanyahu certainly should present a more detailed two-state picture. His own Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor, choosing his words carefully in an address on Tuesday, said that if Netanyahu were to unveil a new initiative, it should set out Israel’s border needs, including specifying settlement blocs to be retained, because as things stood, Israel left the impression it intended to retain all the territories. Meridor also mused about the possibility of convening some kind of successor to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, where Netanyahu, then deputy foreign minister, scored a PR success by articulately briefing Arab reporters on Israel’s positions.
Others I’ve spoken to have all but pleaded, anonymously, for an Israeli plan, any plan, to wrest the initiative away from the Palestinians and the international community. It doesn’t matter how hawkish the territorial position Netanyahu would take in such an initiative, say some of them, it would at least represent a public advance on his framework position, outlined at Bar-Ilan University two years ago, in favor of Palestinian statehood. It would spell out Israeli needs, necessitate a Palestinian response, and pre-empt international efforts to impose terms upon Israel.
And there are even, whisper it, some voices around the prime minister – a minority, it should be stressed – suggesting that Netanyahu should call the Palestinians’ statehood bluff at the UN this fall. This country, they point out, was revived and relegitimized by the international community as one part of a two-state solution. Our leadership accepted partition then, however grudgingly, and Netanyahu has already said he accepts it, at least in theory, now. So why not make plain in the behind-the-scenes contacts leading up to September, they suggest, that Israel, far from fighting a resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood, wants to be central to the process of drafting that resolution?
Abrams said much the same in his Weekly Standard piece: “Israel should not be frozen in fear of a Palestinian declaration of independence or recognition at the UN...Perhaps the next country to recognize an independent Palestine should be Israel. This is, after all, a declared Israeli policy goal... It is obvious that Israeli recognition would immediately devalue that Palestinian diplomatic campaign aimed at racking up additional endorsements each week, and could allow Israel to help define what ‘recognition’ means anyway.”
Elaborating, Abrams argued that “Israel should say that with this new state of Palestine it has a million practical issues to discuss, beginning with grave border disputes but continuing from customs issues to the management of the Allenby Bridge to possible use of Mediterranean ports. Personal status issues are dangerous and complex: What is the situation of Israelis in areas the state of Palestine views as its own? Is it the Palestinian position that the new state must be Judenrein, a position President Abbas has repeatedly taken? Israel should immediately challenge that position in every possible forum, for it is an indefensible racist view that the EU for one will have to denounce.”
Critically, he continued, however, words will not be enough. “Protecting Israel’s interests may start with clever diplomacy but cannot end there,” he reasoned. “Israel should start to disentangle itself from governing the West Bank and the Arabs who live in it, and if this cannot be achieved through negotiations with the Palestinians it should be achieved through Israeli-designed unilateral steps that maximize Israeli security interests...
“Netanyahu will have to act as well as speak, telling both Israelis and foreigners what he will do to begin to shape an outcome where there are no Israelis in over 90 percent of the West Bank. He can maximize the ability of Israel’s friends and supporters, not least in this country, to support Israel if he acts with boldness and principle to guarantee the future safety of the Jewish state.”
That thinking is echoed by some of the voices in Jerusalem. If the Palestinians are bent on achieving an international “envelope,” these voices say, let’s use it: Stress that Israel will vote for a resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood – subject, that is, to the modalities of that state being resolved by agreement, bilaterally, with Israel. Why be on the wrong side of this process, they ask, when Israel’s firm contention is that we have been the party that was open to viable compromise for the past 63 years, and that it is the Palestinians who are the serial rejectionists?
It may seem unlikely that Netanyahu is contemplating doing any such
thing. He would fear alienating more of the political Right, who were so
unhappy with his Bar-Ilan talk of Palestinian statehood. And in the
minefield of the UN, there might be insufficient confidence that Israel
could keep control of any gambit and be sure to emerge with the
resolution it wants.
But in the diplomatic poker game playing out on the road to September –
an extraordinarily high-stakes battle of wits that involves not only the
Palestinians and the international community but the prime minister’s
domestic political rivals as well – the very last thing the prime
minister would do, in any case, is show his hand just yet.