Diplomacy abhors a vacuum.
RELATED:Israel warns of unilateral steps if PA seeks UN statehoodUN Mideast envoy slams Israel's renewed building
That was one of the reasons Ariel Sharon
unfurled his Gaza disengagement plan in late 2003, and it is also an axiom many
are repeating – in various forms – to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as the
direct talks with the Palestinians have gone off the tracks over the settlement
building moratorium issue.
When Sharon first became prime minister in
2001, he said on a number of occasions that there were two key elements he
needed in order to defeat the second intifada: internal unity and a sympathetic
ear in Washington. He unfurled disengagement two years later when both those
pillars began to crack.
The internal solidarity so important in fighting
the terrorism had begun dissolving in late 2003, when then-MK Avraham Burg wrote
a damning article reprinted around the world about Israel’s policies, when 27
reserve and active pilots signed a letter against targeted killings and when 13
reserve commandos said they would no longer serve in the territories.
the sympathetic ear in Washington had started to get tinny when the Yossi
Beilin-Yasser Abed Rabbo Geneva Initiative, calling for two states based roughly
on the 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian
state, received a positive hearing by US secretary of state Colin Powell and the Bush White House. To make matters worse, the
Europeans started talking about various different peace plans.
all Sharon needed. He understood he couldn’t wait for others to call the shots
and that he needed to take the initiative. He realized he needed to fill the
vacuum with a plan of his own that would drown out all others, that he needed to
be proactive, that in foreign and security policy there is no vacuum. And that
if you don’t fill it, someone else will do it for you.
So Sharon came up
with the withdrawal from Gaza.
There are those now telling Netanyahu to
take note. Not that he is being counseled to unilaterally withdraw from
territory – the Gaza experience, and also the 2000 withdrawal from southern
Lebanon, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took a victory lap last
week, have disabused many of the wisdom of that particular course.
Netanyahu is being told by some that extending the settlement moratorium for a
limited amount of time might not be a bad idea, both because by so doing he
would avoid being blamed for the collapse of the direct talks, and because if he
doesn’t take this step, the talks will indeed break down and the vacuum won’t
remain unfilled – something will take its place.
And, increasingly, that
“something” looks like a Palestinian campaign to get the international community
– the US, the UN, the International Criminal Court in The Hague – to recognize
Palestinian sovereignty over east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
other words the state within the 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital
that the Palestinians failed to gain through negotiations (the Oslo Accords),
and through violence (the second intifada), they now hope to achieve through
Yasser Arafat had singular authority over the
Palestinians, but limited credibility and respectability, one Israeli diplomatic
source noted this week. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime
Minister Salam Fayyad have limited authority over the Palestinians – just look
at the Gaza-West Bank fissure for proof – but a great deal of international
credibility and respectability. And that is currency, the official said,
that goes over especially well in the West.
(Ironically, this credibility
and respectability has been bestowed upon them – to no small extent – by
Israel. President Shimon Peres, among others, regularly praises the job
Fayyad is doing in building up Palestinian national institutions, including the
PA security apparatus, and – just last month in Washington – Netanyahu called
Abbas his “partner in peace.”)
Already in February, French Foreign Minister
Bernard Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart, Miguel Moratinos, replaced in a
Spanish cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, floated the idea of EU recognition of a
Palestinian state in 18 months, after Fayyad has the Palestinian institutions in
place, even without an agreement between Israel and the
That idea was floated at a time when there were no talks,
and the Europeans were searching for a way to jump-start something, anything.
Israel pushed back and the idea remained on a low burner when proximity talks
were declared and then when direct talks resumed last month. Indeed, Kouchner
and Moratinos, during their meetings in Jerusalem with top officials earlier
this month, made clear that the European preference was a negotiated agreement,
not an imposed one.
However, what if there are no negotiations? What if
the talks break down completely? It has often been said that in the Middle East
a diplomatic process is important – even if both sides realize its chances of
success are slim – because the process itself is significant. The idea is that
motion, even if unaccompanied by movement, is good.
But what if there is
not only no movement, but also no motion? In that case the concern a number of
people have brought to the prime minister in recent days is not only the
prospect of a return to violence, which is always on everyone’s mind, but also
that the Palestinians will succeed in moving the debate to the international
community – the UN – where Israel is at a severe disadvantage.
General Assembly, as Netanyahu himself said in his address to that body in 2009,
is a forum where there is a built-in pro-Arab majority that, if it wanted,
“could declare that the earth is flat.”
Israeli officials, bracing for
the possibility that the General Assembly may be asked to take up the
Palestinian question, or make some resolution declaring all settlements illegal,
have a drawer full of counterarguments.
Some of them revolve around the
fact that the 1967 lines were never a recognized border. If the General
Assembly, for instance, makes a declaration of Palestinian statehood, where are
the exact borders? What does that mean regarding Mount Scopus in Jerusalem,
which from 1949-1967 was a protected Jewish enclave, or various areas that were
defined as “no-man’s-land,” including in Jerusalem and in the Latrun area? How
could a state be declared without a clear delineation of borders? Other
arguments lean on the fact that if the UN makes unilateral determinations about
“occupied Palestine,” then why not similarly take action on “occupied Tibet,”
“occupied northern Cyprus” or “occupied western Sahara”? The problem, however,
is not with the arguments.
The problem is that this type of move – taking
the question to the UN – would set the ball rolling, build momentum that will be
hard to contain, and it will be hard to predict where it will all
While it is fairly certain the US would veto a unilateral Security
Council resolution declaring a Palestinian state – though a resolution declaring
the settlements illegal may be more difficult for Washington to vote against –
there is an enormous amount of distance between voting against something and
actively campaigning against it.
Israel would not only expect the US to
vote against any such motion in any UN forum – even if the Palestinians don’t
take it to the Security Council because of the fear of a veto – but also to
actively campaign against it and get others to block it as well.
month in Vienna, Israel – with the active and intensive support of the US – was
able to squash a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency calling
for it to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and place its nuclear
facilities under IAEA guidelines. The US could have simply voted against the
resolution and left it at that. But it didn’t; rather, it fought diplomatically,
shoulder to shoulder with Israel, to defeat the measure.
One could say
with a good degree of certainty that the US would not support unilateral
Palestinian efforts in the UN, and will most likely vote against them. But will
Washington work with Israel against them, especially if it holds Netanyahu
responsible for the current stalemate because of a refusal to extend the
settlement moratorium? That right now is a very open question – one the
Palestinians are more than eager to pose, and one the world will deem completely
legitimate as long as there is no motion. As long as there are no direct talks.