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