Above the Fray: The great Mideast chess game

With the September UN General Assembly just five months away, the time for Israel’s move is now.

By
April 22, 2011 17:22
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu open mouth 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Yin Dongxun)

 
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Amid the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, a storm of diplomatic activity is brewing. The Palestinians, Israel and the United States are carefully calculating what moves to make next. Only the Palestinians appear to have a clear-cut strategy: internationalizing the conflict through a United Nations General Assembly Resolution recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, within the 1967 borders. Meanwhile, the US and Israel are feverishly working to develop counter strategies of their own that will shelve the Palestinians’ plan and maintain some semblance of the prospect that a two-state solution can be reached through good-faith negotiations.

For that to succeed, however, Israel must come up with a credible peace plan that the Palestinians are willing to accept as a basis for negotiations and that the Obama administration can also embrace. But with the September General Assembly just five months away, the time to make such a move on the Mideast chessboard is now.

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THE PALESTINIAN Authority’s recognition strategy has, on the surface, been quite successful. Over 130 nations have already endorsed the proposed resolution for statehood and many other countries are prepared to recognize a Palestinian state. Western European nations who support the two-state solution have generously funded Palestinian civil society programs, and institutions are eager to see the benefits of their decades-long investment. In advance of a donors’ conference in Brussels next week, reports have been issued by United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, all expressing enthusiastic support for the progress toward a self-sustaining Palestinian state. The UN report indicated that: “In six areas where the UN is most engaged, government operations are now sufficient for a functioning government of a [Palestinian] state.”

The International Monetary Fund stated: “The PA is now able to conduct the sound economic policies expected of a future well-functioning Palestinian state.”

And the World Bank said: “If the Palestinian Authority maintains its performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.”

Even more, US President Barack Obama himself stated to great applause in his address to last year’s General Assembly that “When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

With so many elements coalescing together, the Palestinian plan for recognition come September seems to be in place – or does it? Privately, some Palestinians recognize the drawbacks of the UN option and even admit that this is not a solution, but only a change in the nature of the conflict. UN recognition cannot remove IDF soldiers or West Bank settlers. It cannot enable the flow of goods into or between Palestinian territories. Nor does it not solve the Fatah-Hamas split. Should there be no political progress after September, even with recognition, President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to resign. But what would be next? While much has been invested in developing the threat of a unilateral declaration, there appears to be little strategy as to what to do with that recognition.



Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s institution-building plan continues to be an admirable enterprise. But is it sustainable without continued cooperation, coordination, and negotiations with Israel, especially since an important part of the Palestinian successes – as suggested by the IMF report – are attributed to Israel’s security cooperation and support of the Palestinians’ economic development programs? And how does the Gaza Strip factor into the UN’s recognition, if it is still under the control of Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, another UN member state? These uncertainties, coupled with the regional unrest, have led Fatah and Hamas to renewed reconciliation talks. Although both sides know that reaching a unity agreement before going to the UNGA is critical, whether a Fatah-Hamas agreement is imminent, or even possible, remains to be seen. However, it is clear that with uncertainties and questions mounting, the Palestinian Authority would be eager to grasp at a new diplomatic initiative if it offered a way for the Palestinian leadership to save face, and provided the Palestinian people with confidence that their national aspirations are being met, and the conflict with Israel finally ended.

Only the US and Israel can give the Palestinians such assurances – but will they? Israeli officials have publicly recognized the potential chaos that would erupt should a Palestinian state be declared. Recently, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that in such a scenario Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami.”

President Shimon Peres’s recent meeting with Obama is widely believed to have laid the groundwork for the possibility of an Israeli initiative that would head off the Palestinian one. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington in late May for the annual AIPAC conference, all eyes will be awaiting a much anticipated “Netanyahu plan.”

Rumors thus far indicate that the plan could include a withdrawal of IDF soldiers from some of the West Bank, providing a greater area for Palestinian security forces to operate, and moving some areas from Israeli to Palestinian control. Yet while Netanyahu has put the brakes on recent Jerusalem construction, his rumored plan does not include removing any settlers or a freeze on housing construction in the settlements, which the PA made a sine qua non to the resumption of negotiations.

To be sure, Netanyahu stands to lose the support of his two main coalition partners, Shas and Israel Beiteinu, who respectively reject compromises on Jerusalem and sweeping territorial concessions that will include uprooting scores of settlements. If he seriously discusses these sensitive issues which the Palestinians insist upon, he will also lose the support of many members of his own Likud party.

WITH SUCH political obstacles in place, whether Netanyahu can deliver a plan that will be sufficient to keep the Palestinians from using the UN option is doubtful. However, what is abundantly clear based on his own history, Netanyahu will market any plan he develops during his trip to Washington as if it is a monumental leap toward peace – and many US legislators are likely to buy it. But will the Palestinians?

Today, Obama is boxed in. His remarks at the UN General Assembly last year (and in Cairo before that), the consistent development of the Palestinian Authority hailed by international bodies, the democratic revolutions of the current “Arab Spring,” and the potential fallout should a solution to the current stalemate not be found, all suggest that it is high time for a Palestinian state. But there are also constraints. Obama surely realizes that Israel itself feels threatened by the uncertainty that has gripped the region as a result of the Arab revolts, and is particularly reluctant to pursue peace at the moment as a result. Without Israel’s consent, any arrangement for the Palestinians is unlikely to be sustainable. Even more, the “diplomatic tsunami” that Israel could face should the president be unsuccessful in navigating the peace process out of its current malaise will be on his watch, during an election season, in which 63 percent of Americans’ sympathies lie with Israel.

Obama would like nothing more than to expand upon a meaningful initiative by Netanyahu that he could package to the Palestinians and the reshaping Arab world. He would also undoubtedly love to travel to Jerusalem – as he is rumored to be contemplating attending Peres’s “Tomorrow Conference” in June – with a message of friendship and peacemaking in hand, in order to place the highly publicized tension between him and the Israeli prime minister in the past. But he cannot do so without Netanyahu’s help.

The US is eager to advance an initiative that will provide ample grounds to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than see them pursue unilateral measures. The parameters of a two-state solution are known and have been rehashed ad nauseam. It is likely that Israelis and Palestinians want the same.

But for now, in the Mideast chess game, all eyes remain on the Israeli prime minister – it is now Netanyahu’s move.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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