Editor's Notes: Unilateralism is no mirage

Netanyahu's right: Palestinians won’t achieve peace with Israel by unilaterally declaring establishment of "Palestine." But they're not talking about peace. They're talking about statehood.

fayyad olives_311 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
fayyad olives_311
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
The months go by, and while Israel keeps its head buried in the sand, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s declared summer 2011 deadline for Palestinian statehood draws nearer.
Photogenically picking olives with Fayyad on Tuesday, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry offered his stamp of approval for the purportedly soon-to-be-established “Palestine.”
“All international players are now in agreement that the Palestinians are ready for statehood at any point in the near future,” Serry said to Fayyad. “We are in the home stretch of your agenda to reach that point by August next year, and you have our full support.”
A day earlier, the PA President Mahmoud Abbas had spoken about the possibility of seeking statehood unilaterally, via what he termed a “resort to the United Nations.”
Other PA officials have frequently invoked this option of late, bemoaning Israel’s ostensible torpedoing of peace hopes and looking to the international community for unilateral recognition.
A couple of weeks ago, the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made plain that even some countries that consider themselves to be firm friends of Israel might not prove deaf to Palestinian efforts toward unilateral recognition, saying that France “cannot rule out in principle the Security Council option” if the negotiating process is beset by “prolonged deadlock.”
And officials within the US administration, while indicating to their Israeli counterparts that the US would veto any effort by the Palestinians to seek binding UN Security Council backing for the unilaterally declared establishment of “Palestine” within the pre-1967 lines, have also been stressing the limits of their veto power. Look at the case of Kosovo, for instance, they suggest. This is a “nation” that has not been recognized by the Security Council, where permanent member Russia is implacably opposed, but whose “statehood” – declared by its parliament in February 2008 and recognized by some 70 countries, including the US – is nonetheless something of a fait accompli.
The Kosovo “precedent” is certainly not lost on the Palestinians. Earlier this month, Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti urged that an independent Palestine be declared now “on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, including east Jerusalem” and that the world community be pressed to “recognize it and its borders, as it did in the case of Kosovo.”
Serene in the face of such ostensible pressures, the Israeli government continues to insist that there is no credible, viable path to statehood for the Palestinians via the unilateral route.
Opening Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared that “We expect the Palestinians to honor their commitment to hold direct negotiations. I think any attempt to bypass them by appealing to international bodies is unrealistic...”
But is it?
THE KOSOVO “precedent” is plainly quite different from the Palestinian context. (Indeed, Israelis who have spent time in Kosovo say that people there often compare their emergence to that of Israel.) But there are numerous critical parallels and themes that Israel would be extremely foolish to ignore.
“Independent” Kosovo was born out of the fragmentation two decades ago of Yugoslavia, and what proved to be the impossibility of peacefully resolving the conflicting demands of one of the former Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics, Serbia, with those of the Albanian majority in what had been the autonomous area of Kosovo. The unilateral declaration of statehood followed years of violence, international intervention, the designation by the Security Council in 1999 of Kosovo as a UN protectorate, and the terminal failure of a succession of efforts to foster substantive negotiations between Kosovo’s Albanian leadership and Belgrade.
A fragmenting federation, war, NATO involvement on the ground and the absence of anything remotely close to an agreed framework for resolving the crisis – in all these aspects Kosovo differs utterly from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict arena. Just to be on the safe side, furthermore, the US made explicit, when recognizing Kosovo, that this process represented no legal precedent whatsoever.
Where the potent similarities begin, however, is that in Kosovo, as with the Palestinians, the international community was galvanized by a group that sought independence from another party whose rule it did not accept; and where that group was impatient and felt that it had sufficient strength to advance its cause.
Kosovo’s road to independence featured an earlier declaration of a separate republic, in 1992, which went nowhere because, as Nikolas Gvosdev pointed out in an article in World Politics Review a few days ago, it had “no formal governing presence in any part of the territories it claimed as its state” and no real institutions of state. But by 2008, Kosovo did have “a functional governmental apparatus” in at least part of the territory it claimed, and it has subsequently gained a “certain critical mass” of international recognition.
“As a result,” Gvosdev notes with what ought to be dramatic resonance for Israeli ears, “any future talks with Serbia will be aimed not at getting Kosovo to give up its independence, but rather at determining the conditions and arrangements under which Belgrade will accept an independent government in Pristina.”
Try re-reading that sentence with certain substitutions after a unilateral assertion of Palestinian statehood: Any future talks with Israel will be aimed not at getting Palestine to give up its independence, but rather at determining the conditions and arrangements under which Jerusalem will accept an independent government in east Jerusalem.
The echoes from Kosovo of that shift to international acceptance over the past couple of decades drastically undermine official Israel’s insistently sanguine response to the Palestinians’ unilateralist threats. Fayyad’s entire state-building exercise has been designed to demonstrate, Kosovo-style, the attainment of a “formal governing presence” in at least part of the territories being claimed and the establishment of “a functional governmental apparatus.”
And much of the international community has long-since been won over. So Israel’s blithe, dismissive reminder that the Palestinians have little to show from their last attempt at the unilateralist route – the 1988 declaration of statehood that won recognition from some 90 nations – is simply outdated. We are not in 1988 anymore.
Kosovo is not the only cautionary tale. Gvosdev cites the case of Lithuania to demonstrate that a potential state need not be in full control of the territory it claims in order to gain international recognition:
“When Lithuania redeclared its independence in 1990,” he writes, “numerous states... recognized its status as a sovereign member of the international community, even though the Soviet Union rejected such a claim and refused to withdraw its forces from Lithuanian soil. By the time the USSR accepted the reality of Lithuanian independence on September 6, 1991, a separate Lithuanian government had already been functioning for more than a year. Even the United States, which was one of the last states in the world to extend de jure recognition, had already begun to deal with a government in Vilnius on a de facto basis.”
THE PALESTINIANS themselves, it is asserted in the prime minister’s circle, don’t believe they have a serious unilateral option. Even Fayyad, it is stated, knows that borders, for instance, have to be demarcated by agreement.
“Everyone understands that a solution must be negotiated,” sources close to Netanyahu have repeatedly stated. “Everything else is a mirage. They know that. We know that.”
Every now and again, it is noted in Jerusalem, the Palestinians come out with statements threatening variously that Abbas will resign, they’ll dismantle the PA, they’ll shift to seeking a one-state solution or they’ll go the unilateral route. This rhetoric is viewed as a case of the Palestinians essentially saying, “Hold us back. Our commitment to reconciliation is not real. We have other options.” In fact, though, runs the Jerusalem mantra: “There are no other options.”
Essential aspects of statehood, it is pointed out, include a defined territory, a defined population, effective government and the recognition of other states. Official Israel, as far as I can understand, believes the Palestinians to be deficient in at least two of those areas.
One might acknowledge that they represent a defined population and they could certainly count on widespread international support. But in the official Israeli assessment, they lack a defined territory – negotiations having thus far failed to define borders – and they lack effective government – which is less a critique of Fayyad’s institution-building efforts and more a factual description of the practical limitations of PA authority, over such basic areas as controlling what goes in and out of its would-be Palestine. Official Israel, largely unmoved by evidence to the contrary in cases such as Kosovo and Lithuania, evidently wants to believe that these deficiencies doom the notion of unilateral statehood.
In conversation with some in Israeli officialdom this week, I ventured the suggestion that the resort to unilateralism, at the very least, would surely ratchet up the pressure on Israel. The international community is less sympathetic to Israel, and more impressed by the Palestinian leadership’s credentials and ostensible capacity to maintain stability, than it was when Yasser Arafat tried the unilateral declaration route 22 years ago, I noted. And so, if “Palestine” is being stymied because of the failure to negotiate core issues like agreed borders with Israel, then a Palestinian unilateralist effort would surely provoke intensified calls on Israel to negotiate those borders, and other core issues, in a spirit of greater compromise.
The frustrated response was that Israel is ready to negotiate. In rather anguished terms, it was noted that the Palestinians claim they need other solutions because the talks are going nowhere, but that the talks are only going nowhere because the Palestinians are refusing to negotiate. And as for the Palestinian claim that settlements are the problem, the official line from Jerusalem was that the settlement enterprise does not preempt a negotiated solution, that no planned construction will affect the contours of peace, that the overwhelming majority of proposed construction is within the settlement blocs, and that the minority of building that is outside the blocs – an extra house or two here and there in an isolated settlement – won’t make a difference, because it would either be dismantled under a peace agreement or would be on the Palestinian side of the border.
These may all be eminently reasonable arguments, but none of them, I repeated, is likely to forestall international pressure if the Palestinians do opt for the unilateral route.
The point was acknowledged. Of course there’d be pressure, one source finally allowed. And then he added, ruefully: You don’t think we’re under pressure already?
TRADE MINISTER Benjamin Ben-Eliezer this week spoke for some in the government who are internalizing the growing perceived international legitimacy of “Palestine.” Time isn’t merely working against us, observed Ben- Eliezer, who just got back from talks in Washington. “It’s racing against. Racing.”
Many in the Israeli diplomatic hierarchy, moreover, understand that the world has changed in the past couple of decades – and specifically that the US no longer calls the shots globally in the way that it once could. American economic dominance, American military dominance and American diplomatic dominance have receded. There are more global power centers. The US itself, recognizing these changes, works more readily with international forums.
For Israel, for whom the alliance with the US remains paramount, these shifts have nonetheless required a shift in diplomacy, a diversified investment of effort and energy.
In terms of the conflict with the Palestinians, these shifts have also required a gradual internalization that the Middle East peace Quartet – that constellation of would-be mediators comprising the US, UN, EU and Russia – potentially carries real weight, and is no longer just a diplomatic construct designed to give the international community a superficial sense of involvement, while only the US really matters.
This changing climate again renders some of the public Israeli comments on unilateralism – the blasé dismissal of a unilateral Palestine as a “mirage” and a “pipe dream” – unconscionably complacent. And Netanyahu’s own assertion on Sunday that attempts at unilateralism “will not give any impetus to a genuine diplomatic process” completely misses the point.
By definition, a resort to unilateralism “will not give any impetus to a genuine diplomatic process.” The whole thrust of unilateralism is an escape from a genuine diplomatic process – an attempt to achieve, without agreement, ambitions and gains that could not be won at the peace table, and to achieve them without the concessions that a genuine diplomatic process would require.
OTHER ISRAELI arguments against unilateralism also seem unlikely to give the Palestinians much pause. It is suggested that a unilateral declaration of statehood, though endorsed by long sympathetic nations, might be strongly resented by other, fairer-minded countries that oppose the abandonment of the diplomatic process. But one wonders how many such nations there might turn out to be, and how grave a concern that would be for the Palestinians, given the international hostility to Israel right now, and Israel’s perceived responsibility for the failure of the direct talks to date.
It is asserted that unilateral statehood might cause problems of legality for the Palestinians in countries where their independence was not recognized. Would a “President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas” be accorded a White House welcome in a US that had not formally recognized his “country,” or a Downing Street hearing in a Britain that was similarly withholding recognition? Here, too, it is unlikely that the Palestinians would be too fearful of a diplomatic cold shoulder; American or British mandarins would presumably prove capable of finding a legaldiplomatic finesse to solve such problems.
It is argued that a resort to unilateralism would breach the Oslo Accords and that various signatories and witnesses to these and other interim agreements, including the US, EU, Egypt and Jordan, might resent the breach and withhold recognition. They might. They might not. A concern for the Palestinians? Possibly. But enough to deter them? Unlikely.
Officials have issued vague threats about Israel’s capacity to take unilateral actions of its own should the Palestinians pursue the unilateral route. Risibly, anonymous officials were quoted in some newspapers here last week “warning” that Israel might respond by dismantling isolated settlements or reviving Ehud Olmert’s “convergence” plan for the removal of tens of thousands of settlers from areas outside the settlement blocs. As “threats” and “warnings” go, these are absurd. Don’t declare statehood because, if you do, we’ll take steps that would ease the process for you?! The Palestinians are hardly going to be quaking at the prospect.
Perhaps Israel might seek to unilaterally annex the major settlement blocs. But Israel would want to annex them anyway in the context of a negotiated accord; this way, the Palestinians might reason, Israel would simply be annexing with less legitimacy and less support, and without the Palestinian leadership having compromised and condoned it.
Another purported bulwark against Palestinian unilateralism is the notion that the subsequent legal vacuum of voided accords and conflicting assertions of authority could cause chaos and violence on the ground, to the detriment, among others, of the Palestinian Authority. This seems a more credible consideration for the PA to bear in mind. Then again, Abbas and Fayyad may have an elevated sense of their capacity to maintain relative stability. Or they may be prepared to risk chaos and violence.
And, finally, it is noted that a unilateral declaration of statehood – with many of “Palestine’s” key parameters and fundamental aspects still unresolved – is no substitute for the benefits of finding a binding, detailed, stable agreement with an enemy turned full peace partner. As Netanyahu said on Sunday, “peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations.”
That argument, of course, is undeniable...if your goal is peace. The thing is, however, that the Palestinians are talking about something else. About statehood. About a process that would give international weight to their demands no matter what the immediate practical implications, and no matter how many problems – all the core issues, plus the question of the fate of Gaza – remain unresolved. International support for statehood, without the necessity to come to terms with Israel, to legitimize Israel.
AT TUESDAY’S olive-picking event, timed to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Fayyad expressed the hope that “when we celebrate the 66th UN Day next year, we will be celebrating also the emergence of a Palestinian state.”
A day later, he told an Italian newspaper that he would give Israel “one more year of grace.” These “colonies,” he said of the settlements, “can no longer be there. They are illegal everywhere; here and in Jerusalem.”
In 2011, he said more bluntly this time, “the United Nations will celebrate the birth of our nation... The deadline is next summer, when the Israeli occupation of the West Bank must end.”
Israel can talk dismissively about pipe dreams and mirages. But Fayyad isn’t being light-headed. He’s a perfectly clear thinker. And he knows exactly where “Palestine” is heading. Israel doesn’t.