Palestinians seek pride; Israelis fear mischief

Dueling Narratives: Mideast experts discuss what will follow the PA UN statehood bid and what influence it will have on the region and peace talks.

Palestinians hold candels in Ramallah rally_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Palestinians hold candels in Ramallah rally_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Visiting Ramallah a few short weeks ago, the preponderance of replies to questions about what will follow the Palestinian UN gambit were remarkably similar to those heard in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israelis and Palestinians were saying the same thing, but with accents on different syllables. For Palestinians, it was “nothing will change on the ground, but it will nevertheless be a boost for national self-respect and something good for the people. Palestine and Israel will speak as equals.” And for Israelis, it was “nothing will change on the ground, but as a unilateral act it’s provocative and could lead to negative unintended consequences – and very much intended political and legal mischief.”
Yet, as the stage is readied and the participants pour into Turtle Bay, the indescribable intensity of diplomatic activity belies anything ordinary or resistant to change. Something is, indeed, going down; and whatever it is, is major. When the dust clears, the Israel-Palestinian conflict will have entered a new phase. Even if it fails to move forward as measured by agreements in-hand, the dynamics will have shifted such that the rules of the game will have changed. The genie will not return to the bottle.
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Only in recent days has it become so clear that the player who stands to lose most sits on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, not in the Muqata, in Ramallah. The focus of the forceful eleventh-hour diplomacy is to find a way for US President Barack Obama – who a year ago touted Palestinian statehood -- not to cast a veto in the Security Council, either because the resolution fails to garner a majority of “yea” votes or because the Palestinians accept a deal that will postpone the vote. Regardless of the ostensible outcome, newly-created political currency in the form of chits and promises will abound and the ensuing months will be rife with the sounds of shifting realities.
Beyond the "optimistic" who tend to believe “the day after will look like the day before,” the "more alarmed" proffer a picture of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians massing (a la Arab Spring) on Israel’s borders; perched precariously upon the thin line that separates peace and provocation.  And those whose worldview is weighted with political intricacies and intrigue argue that tables have turned to the point where the American government’s potential downside includes isolation and loss of credibility as the region’s honest broker.
Seeking representation from significant population segments, The Media Line asked for the impressions of Israeli and Palestinian official spokespersons; women in government; academics; and those who say the most in the fewest words: cartoonists. Contributors including Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; Jamal Zakout, media adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian Government Media Center; MK Einat Wilf; Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Khaloud Daibes; Boaz Ganor, founder of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya; Bassem Zbeidi, professor of political science at Birzeit University; Gadi Wolfsfeld, author of the newly-released Making Sense of Media and Politics: Five Principles in Political Communication; Yaakov Kirschen, creator of Dry Bones cartoon; and arguably the most famous Palestinian political cartoonist, Baha Boukhari; shared uncertainty regarding how things will be different, but were in agreement – albeit one side seeing it positively and the other negatively -- that statehood will allow the Palestinians access to international forums that could prove problematic for the Israeli side.
While Professor Zbeidi opines that, “The gains for the PA are not going to be tangible real things, but are going to be symbolic,” Ghassan Khatib alludes to the tangible when he says “going to the UN will put us on higher ground legally and politically.” Khaloud Daibes is even more specific when she speaks of “gaining more tools to protect our people,” in particular the ability to “join all UN institutions including the World Bank, World Health Organization; and UNESCO, making it easier to protect our heritage, archaeological and religious sites.”
The Israelis find the Palestinian prediction alarmingly accurate. Parliamentarian Einat Wilf warns that the status upgrade arms the Palestinians with the ability to “launch legal attacks against Israel.” Cartoonist Kirschen agrees, characterizing what he sees as future “lawfare and delegitimization attacks on the Jewish state.” But Wilf, a rapidly rising political star, has a warning of her own for the Palestinians. She suggests that statehood could be the undoing of the intractable refugee issue by “depriving them of their claim that the Palestinians continue to be a stateless and homeless people.”
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Just how confrontational the UN gambit is at all demonstrates the clear divide between parties and the willing avoidance of negotiations -- of which each side accuses the other. To the Palestinians, the UN option is neither unilateral nor injurious to the ongoing peace process overseen by the Quartet (US; UN; European Union; and Russia). Khatib says it “complements efforts to resume peace talks,” and Zakout suggests that the UN gambit could have the effect of “pushing” the Israeli government to “recognize Palestinian rights” and return to the Road Map process. But to Wilf, the Palestinians have proven Israel’s case. “If the Palestinians believe there is no contradiction between the UN gambit and return to negotiations, then they should also accept that there is no contradiction between building settlements and returning to negotiations – something that the Palestinians resisted and used as an ongoing pretext to avoid negotiations.”  Regev insists that because the Palestinians used the settlement issue as its red-line, “We’ve wasted two and a half years. Had the Palestinians agreed to start talking peace with Israel directly, we’d be closer today to peace and independent Palestinian statehood than we are.”
Among pundits and commentators, there are none as skilled as cartoonists in their ability to cut to the chase and tell the story with the fewest of words.  Yaakov Kirschen of Dry Bones fame -- who virtually chronicled modern Israeli history in the aggregate of his drawings -- insists that the aim of the UN gambit is to “further extend the areas of the Middle East from which Jews are to be ‘ethnically cleansed.” His recent cartoons mocked Palestinian intentions to delegitimize Israel, suggesting it will rather be the United Nations which suffers that fate; and spoofed that next year’s UN gambit will be to “undeclare the Jewish state.”
On the Palestinian side, it was the astute Baha who was among the first to recognize the American conundrum and the political peril of Obama becoming the persona of the denial of Palestinian national fulfillment. Referring to a US veto, Baha Boukhari told The Media Line, “it would reflect [America’s] real hypocrisy when it comes to all the proclaimed slogans of freedom, democracy and human rights.” Indeed, Boukhari recently drew a cartoon depicting a Palestinian family trying to reach the iconic United Nations building only to be blocked by Uncle Sam who proclaims, “Over my dead body!” In another powerful frame, Boukhari drew the vilified Israeli security barrier – “the wall” -- with the UN building appearing as one of its vertical concrete sections below the caption, “The cruel wall.”
As events play out, much remains answered, not the least of which is the specter of Hamas hanging above the proceedings. Boaz Ganor, of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC in Herzliya, suggests an ominous scenario in which Abbas leads the Palestinians to statehood but then retires, leaving Hamas to take over the West Bank as it did the Gaza Strip with all it portends. Although Abbas himself told The Media Line a week ago that he will be representing “all the Palestinian people” when he addresses the UN, Hamas has pointedly rejected the entire UN enterprise. Zbeidi attributes ‘Abbas’ recent decisions, including the UN gambit, to “political necessity.”
Speaking off the record, Ramallah-based Palestinians have sounded the same concerns that we hear in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv regarding the role Hamas will play following its proclamation of statehood and request for UN membership. Key to the practical considerations is whether the US Congress will cut off aid to the Palestinians because of the UN gambit and/or because Hamas, listed as a terrorist organization, will presumably be part of a unity government. Both scenarios have strong bi-partisan support on Capital Hill.
What is certain is that a new set of dynamics is emerging and that the decision of the Palestinians to seek UN membership at this time will at some point be seen as a catalyst to today’s events.