Diplomacy: How will we remember September?

September is now upon us and what is so striking about this month is simply how much is unknown, how many imponderables there still are.

By
September 2, 2011 17:05
Palestinian UN chair

Palestinian UN Chair_311. (photo credit: Reuters)

“Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.

Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.

Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.

Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow.”

– “Try to Remember,” from The Fantasticks

The long-anticipated month of September is now upon us, and what is so striking about this month during which the Palestinian Authority is expected to seek –and eventually attain – recognition as a non-member state in the United Nations General Assembly is simply how much is unknown, and how many imponderables there still are.

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First, will Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas indeed go through with his threat, despite entreaties from the US and some of his closest friends in Europe – and even over the objections of some key personalities in the PA, such as PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – to take the matter to the UN? And if he does, will he go directly to the General Assembly – where he is assured of victory – or first try the more prestigious route in the Security Council, where he will be stymied by a US veto, but would put Washington on the spot in forcing it to use that veto?

Second, if the PA does go to the UN, what will the resolution say? Will it recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines – meaning the Western Wall will fall inside a UN-recognized Palestinian state – or will the language be softer? What will the European Union demand be inside the resolution to garner its support? Will there be tacit recognition of Israel as a Jewish state? How will the 27-member EU vote – as a bloc, or divided on a key foreign policy issue?

Third, how will the Palestinian street react? Will it erupt in spontaneous celebration, followed by a return to business as usual, realizing that nothing will change on the ground as a result of the decision? Or will the celebration be followed by a dream-deferred cataclysm of violence that will ominously be dubbed the “third intifada”? Or, perhaps, will there be “million-man marches” on settlements and checkpoints that could ignite sporadic violence?

How about the reaction along Israel’s borders – Gaza, Lebanon, and even Syria? Will the fireworks in Ramallah be accompanied by Katyushas from the north and Kassams from the south? And what will the response be in Jordan?

And, finally, how will Israel react, both on a military and on a diplomatic level?



How will the army deal with thousands of protesters marching on a checkpoint outside of Jerusalem? How will it cope with a third intifada? What, diplomatically and politically, will be Jerusalem’s response? Will it tear up the Oslo accords, declare them null and void, and cut off all connection with the PA? Will it annex the Jordan Valley and the large settlement blocs? Or will it largely ignore the declaration, say it’s a meaningless Palestinian “diplomatic” victory, take some minor steps such as canceling the VIP permits for leading PA officials, and carry on?

Today is September 2; in other words, September is here and the General Assembly will convene in 18 days. Nevertheless, there are still no definitive answers to most of these questions. And the fact that everything is so foggy does not make the jobs of the officials in Jerusalem charged with dealing and responding to this month’s events – officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the IDF and the police – any easier.

They are, however, working from a premise that has become widely accepted in Jerusalem over the last few months: that Abbas’s decision to go to the UN is a strategic choice, not a tactical one resulting from a breakdown of negotiations. It is not as if the Palestinians wanted to negotiate in the worst way, saw that it was not going well, and decided to go to the UN to get what they wanted as a last-ditch option.

Rather, the sense in Jerusalem is that the Palestinians reached the conclusion that negotiations would not get them what they wanted, and that rather than having to pay the painful price that would be demanded in any compromise solution, they opted to go to the UN, where they could get the world body to pretty much give them – at least rhetorically – whatever they want.

The Israeli diplomatic process over the last 20 years has gone through numerous phases.

First came the Oslo phase, that period during which the Palestinians seemingly concluded that the best way to reach their goals was not through terrorism, but through negotiation. This period lasted some seven years, until 2000, when Yasser Arafat went to Camp David, came up against Ehud Barak and realized that the most that a left-leaning prime minister could give him still did not meet his minimum requirements.

So instead of compromising on their maximalist demands, Arafat and the Palestinians decided that if they couldn’t get what they wanted through negotiations, they would try a different path. And thus was born the second intifada, with the Palestinians apparently believing that what they couldn’t get through negotiations, they could get through terrorism.

That didn’t work, either – Israeli society proved stronger and more resilient than many thought; the intifada was defeated, and slowly negotiations were tried again. This was Annapolis and beyond, where Abbas came up against Ehud Olmert and realized, after months of negotiations, just what Arafat had: that the most he could get from the Israeli prime minister – and Olmert was willing to give up a lot – still did not meet his minimum requirements. Or, as he told The Washington Post in a moment of candor in May 2009, “the gaps were wide.”

Knowing that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would never offer what Olmert had, Abbas – according to the thinking currently dominating Jerusalem’s decision- makers – decided negotiations were not going to work, and opted for another strategy: first trying to get the Obama administration to “deliver” Israel, and then, when that failed, getting the world to impose a solution. And this is what explains, at least according to the thinking in Jerusalem, the Palestinian leader’s determination to go the UN.

Working on this premise that Abbas’s gambit at the UN is a strategic choice, Jerusalem has reached the conclusion that nothing it can do will sway his decision.

Thus there has been no serious discussion about declaring another settlement freeze to lure him back to talks; Jerusalem believes this would not work, just as it didn’t work last year.

Thus there is no intention in Israel of revealing before the UN vote what exactly its response would be, because there is no hope that if Abbas knew the “price” for his gambit, he would not finish the deal.

Rather, the sense in Jerusalem is that nothing Israel could do, or threaten to do, would deter him. The only hope for months has been that perhaps massive pressure by the US, EU and even some Arab countries could have an impact.

As a result, Israel’s diplomatic strategy for some time has focused on trying to press the EU countries, and through various channels some Arab countries as well, to try and convince Abbas to stop. Israel’s message has been consistent: If he does go to the UN – if he does climb up that particular tree – this will push off the renewal of negotiations for years.

The reasoning is simple: The UN will endorse a resolution that will likely be somethingto which no Israeli prime minister could ever agree – a state inside the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital – and that would be the Palestinians’ starting point for any future negotiations, since how could they ever be expected to ask for less than what was already contained in a UN resolution? Such a UN resolution would cast in stone the gaps that were revealed when Arafat met Barak in 2000, and Abbas met Olmert in 2008. Or, as a senior government official said this week, this would be a “a strategic mistake by the world.”

But it is a strategic mistake Jerusalem believes the world will indeed make, and senior government officials have recently confided they are doubtful that efforts to convince Abbas to back down will bear fruit. As a result, Jerusalem is bracing for the “day after,” and as part of this, a number of different planes have been examined over the last few months at endless meetings among officials from various governmental bodies.

The first plane being considered is what will happen on the ground. When Zimbabwe casts its “yes” vote for the Palestinians and the resolution passes by a wide majority, the reality is that for the average Palestinians in Ramallah and Nablus, little will change.

They might feel a surge of pride, but they will not see fewer IDF soldiers, they will not have an easier time going into Jerusalem, and the settlements will not disappear. So how will they respond?

Some, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believe they will respond with unprecedented violence; Lieberman said recently that the Palestinians “are planning organized violence the likes of which Israel has never seen before.”

This, however, is not an assessment universally shared. And while it is preparing for the worst-case scenario, the truth of the matter is that Jerusalem does not know how the Palestinian street will respond. Much depends on the leadership. Will it throw fuel on the flames, as was the case during the early days of the second intifada, or will it try to stop any paroxysm of violence? More imponderables.

The IDF has been training and preparing for months for the various scenarios, including massive marches on roadblocks and settlements, but there is no certainty that this is the direction things will develop. There is also no certainty that the IDF is even focusing on the right scenario. As one government source said, often what transpires are those things that you don’t foresee.

The second plane is how the UN vote will impact the country diplomatically afterward, a plane to which Barak directed attention several months ago when he warned that Israel was facing a “diplomatic tsunami” in September.

The operative assumptions in Jerusalem are that following the vote at the UN, those states and organizations that already beat up on Israel will now have an additional club with which to do it. Those that want to boycott and disinvest in Israel will have another reason to do so.

But the assumption is also that this is not going to change Israel’s relations with the nations of the world, and that it will not turn overnight into an isolated pariah state. Indian- Israel ties, for instance, will not suffer from New Delhi’s expected support for the measure, nor will Israeli-French ties if the French cast a “yes” vote.

The difference Israel is likely to feel, however, is that the recognition of Palestine as a non-member UN state will give the Palestinians an additional weapon in their arsenal against Israel in the international judicial arena. Whereas in the past, the Palestinians were restricted from taking certain actions against the Jewish state in international legal forums, such as the International Court of Justice, because they did not have the status of a state, this could now change, even if the state that is recognized is only a virtual one.

But even here, sources in Jerusalem say, it is not exactly clear what the ramifications will be, since the international legal system is large and complicated and extremely difficult to read.

With all those question marks out there, one of the only things Jerusalem has decided definitively is that it will not decide how to react until it sees what develops. The size and type of arrow to be drawn from the country’s quiver will be determined by the size and type of threat advancing, and that – even as August has already turned into September – remains to be determined.


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