Diplomacy: The significance of September

A looming Quartet meeting and possible UN vote on Palestinian state recognition have gotten many worried about a new doomsday deadline.

abbas at UN_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
abbas at UN_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is something about Septembers that has a tendency to get everyone all a-flutter. Last year, no less a personage than Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was warning that September 2010 was a critical, crucial month – it was the month of the UN General Assembly meeting; it was the month when the 10-month settlement moratorium would end; it was the month by which the Labor party was watching for a diplomatic movement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu before deciding whether to remain inside the government or quit it.
Everything hinges on September, Lieberman said in private meetings at the time. And he was not the only one making such statements; Defense Minister Ehud Barak was saying the same thing. All eyes were on September.
September came, the UN General Assembly met, the settlement moratorium ended, the short-lived talks with the Palestinians stopped, Labor did not leave the government, the sky did not fall, and the diplomatic world as we know it did not dramatically go into a new orbit.
September turned into October, then November and December, until here we are in April and – again – all eyes are on September.
This is the month during which US President Barack Obama – in a speech at the UN last September – said he hoped to welcome a Palestinian state into the community of nations; when Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said he would declare that Palestinian state-building had been concluded and the institutions there were ready to govern; and when the Palestinians might ask the UN for recognition of statehood.
Reading the papers and listening to the media reports, one could easily walk away with a feeling that September – that back-to-school month of High Holy Days and heat waves – will this year mark the end of one era and the beginning of quite another.
First of all, it is worthwhile to point out that with all the much-discussed isolation Israel now faces, or we say we face, things are not as bad as was expected. This year, 2011, was widely expected a few short months ago to be an extremely difficult year in US-Israel relations, perhaps one of the most difficult years ever.
The even calendar years, one pithy saying goes, belong to Israel; the odd ones, to the Palestinians.
Why? Because the even years are US election years, when the amount of pressure a US administration can place on Israel is moderated by election considerations, while during odd years, there are no such restraints.
With 2011 an odd year, and with Obama holding an outlook on the conflict that is at considerable odds with that of Netanyahu and his government, the feeling following last year’s mid-term US elections in November was that now Obama would have a good 12 months to come down hard on Israel. The feeling was that Obama had a year to bend Netanyahu into making the moves the president deemed necessary for a solution to the conflict before the 2012 presidential election cycle seriously began to kick in and Obama would be forced to back off.
But a funny thing happened on the way to twisting Israel’s arm: The Middle East went haywire. All of a sudden everything was in flux. No one, but no one, really knows what will be, and who will come out on top. There are no givens anymore. Old alliances – like that between the US and Saudi Arabia – are being tested and turning shaky. Old assumptions are no longer relevant. As Dan Meridor, Israel’s intelligence agencies minister, said at a conference put on by The Israel Project this week, the events in Egypt took everyone by surprise. The Israeli intelligence services, he said, the US intelligence services, the European intelligence services, even the Egyptian intelligence services had no clue that what happened in Cairo was about to happen in Cairo.
AS A result of all these developments, the focus has changed. Sure, lip service is being paid to the idea that it is more imperative than ever to forge a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal now in order to “get ahead of the curve” before a new Middle East world order is set, as a way of trying to impact what that world order will look like. But the ton-of-bricks pressure that so many thought Obama was going to apply on Israel during this off-election year has simply not transpired – largely because the man is preoccupied with other regional events.
Following his meeting this week in Washington with President Shimon Peres, Obama said, “With the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it’s more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” Not exactly fighting words.
And even given that Obama likes Peres, but may not share that same emotion toward Netanyahu or be as gentle with him when he comes to Washington in May, those words do not exactly foreshadow a policy of unprecedented pressure on Israel.
This doesn’t mean Israel will not face serious diplomatic challenges in the coming months, both from Washington and from the European capitals. It also doesn’t mean that Israel should not be proactive and come out with some kind of an initiative of its own to remove the image that it has turned into a peace refusnik. But things might not be quite as dark and gloomy as they are often depicted.
Even take some worst-case-solutions scenarios. Let’s say that the Quartet, as many fear, issues a statement at its upcoming meeting in Berlin calling for a Palestinian state to eventually emerge within the 1967 lines, with accepted land swaps. While this would be a serious diplomatic setback – to a certain degree invalidating UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for an Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the Six Day War, but not all the territories – its practical effects would be limited. It is also not at all certain that the US, a key component of this body that also includes the EU, Russia and the UN, would go along with such a call.
Even UN General Assembly recognition of a Palestinian state – as jarring as that may be – might not necessarily change everything that suddenly or dramatically. Barak, in a recent, widely quoted remark, said Israelis were not aware of the diplomatic tsunami this would unleash. But even with a tsunami, there is always the day after, and in the end – as Meridor said – “the Palestinians should ask themselves, what will the next day bring? Will it bring Palestinian control over Ma’aleh Adumim? Where are the borders?” Those types of issues, he said, will have to come out of negotiations – it is unavoidable.
Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic-security bureau, had another thought. Speaking at the same conference as Meridor, Gilad wondered aloud whether the PA would agree to a state in only the West Bank.
Obviously not, he said, answering his own question, because PA President Mahmoud Abbas would say that such a move would be like making peace with only half of one’s body, something no one would ever do.
At the same time, he asked, is the PA capable of taking control of Gaza in five months? It might like Israel to do the job for it, but that is a prospect Jerusalem is not going to leap at. The PA also probably wouldn’t mind if Egypt volunteered, but that also won’t be happening.
The upshot is that even if the UN recognizes a state, the PA won’t be able to implement that recognition on the ground until it takes control of its own “country,” something it is presently unable – or unwilling – to do. Gaza remains as much an elephant in the room now as it did at the Annapolis Conference in 2007, when everyone was talking about a rejuvenated peace process as if something extremely significant – the Hamas takeover of Gaza – had not significantly disrupted the apple cart.
As to the possibility of a Fatah reconciliation with Hamas, that, too, is unlikely because Hamas, like everyone in the world, is waiting to see what emerges in Egypt.
Egypt is set to go to elections in September, and if the Muslim Brotherhood is empowered there – even if it does not control the government – Hamas’s own position vis-à-vis Fatah and the PA under Abbas could change considerably. If Hamas feels strengthened by a strong Muslim Brotherhood tailwind, then their terms of reconciliation are liable to be much stiffer.
ALL THOSE imponderables could lead the free world, or a solid part of it led by the US, to abstain from a UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood recognition, meaning that such a recognition would pass with the automatic anti-Israel majority in the UN, and on the strength of the raised hands of the representatives of states such as Malaysia, Pakistan, Bolivia and Cuba.
But even if the free world, the “significant countries” or part of them, does join in the vote, at some point in time there is going to have to be a return to negotiations, because the Palestinians can’t have a state if it is not clear where the borders are, and even the 1967 lines – which are actually the 1949 Armistice Lines – are not clearly and unequivocally marked on anyone’s map.
Or, as Tal Becker, one of then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s lead negotiators with the Palestinians during the Annapolis process, said at The Israel Project conference: “No international gymnastics, US president’s vocal positions, Quartet parameters, or UN Security Council resolution is a substitute for leaders who believe a deal is possible, want it, and can navigate the landmines to get it into position.”
This will take courageous, able and willing leaders on both sides. The Israeli part of the equation, of course, is discussed endlessly. What is less clear to the world is that it will also entail that type of leadership, desire and ability on the Palestinian side. Since it is doubtful all this will emerge by September, that deadline may come and go like so many other deadlines – many of them doomsday dates – have come and gone in the past.