David Hale, the Obama administration’s Middle East Special Envoy, is scheduled to visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank to persuade him to abandon his plans to seek Palestinian statehood at the United Nations next month. If the U.S. uses its veto power in the Security Council, which seems inevitable, it is likely that Abbas will take up his cause with the General Assembly which is more amendable to the Palestinians and hostile to Israel. Presently, France and Britain would appear to be supporting a veto of the Palestinian effort, while Russia and China are likely to vote in favor of statehood.
The process for statehood is complicated and centers on the ability of the Palestinians to circumvent the Security Council when issues of “world peace” are being decided. Hypothetically, if the Security Council recommends statehood then a vote by the General Assembly will take place on September 20. Presently, the Palestinians have the support of 122 countries for membership. Any vote requires approval by two-thirds of U.N. member-states. If the U.S. does use its veto power, the Palestinians can circumvent the Security Council due to a loophole written in 1950. If all else fails the Palestinians hope to have a 1947 Resolution enforced that partitions the region into a Jewish and Arab state.
Mahmoud Abbas’s push for U.N. membership could be considered a natural progression in the Palestinian’s attempt to attain statehood. While largely symbolic, it derives from past U.N. resolutions in support of the Arabs. Resolution 242, following the Six Day War, demanded the removal of all Israeli armed forces from land seized in 1967. Israel disputes the true meaning of this resolution.
Whether Abbas’s statehood bid fails or succeeds, it is unlikely to fundamentally alter current situation on the ground. Furthermore, it is unlikely to be a catalyst for bringing the Palestinians and the Israeli’s back to the negotiating table. If the Palestinians are awarded statehood and full U.N. membership, the issue is likely to add more unnecessary drama to an already convoluted process. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that Abbas’s bid would “set back peace, and might set it back for years.” In Israel’s calculus, Abbas’s bid would make a negotiated settlement nearly impossible. Despite the importance that both sides place on this vote, there are other issues that make a negotiated settlement all but impossible.
For one, and most importantly, Israel will not negotiate with Hamas unless it renounces terrorism and acknowledges Israel’s right to exist. This fundamental step, to be certain, would create a general sense of goodwill between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. This would also placate demands made by the U.S. and the European Union for Hamas to be considered a legitimate political organization. However, even if Hamas were to take this step, Israel would have to agree to freeze new settlement constructions, which seems unlikely unless they can be induced to do so.
Since the conclusion of the 1967 Six Day War, the Palestinians have long sought a sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem which Israel occupies. While Abbas has consistently argued that he prefers to achieve a negotiated settlement through talks with the Israeli’s, the talks are at an impasse. In light of this impasse, Abbas began pursuing the U.N. membership path late in 2010 by soliciting support from a number of countries. Statehood would entitle the Palestinians to press Israel on a range of issues through a number of international courts. However, the Palestinians are likely to face strong headwinds if Israel is not compelled to abide by any decisions made by the courts. Additionally, the U.S. would support Israel in a number of situations as it has done in the past.
The issue of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders has garnered a significant amount of attention in many global capitals. However, a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders is extremely problematic. For one, hundred of thousands of Israeli’s live in settlements that extend beyond these borders. A way around this issue has been the proposal of mutually agreed to land swaps. Essentially, during any negotiations the Palestinians would cede territory and vice versa.
As recently as last month there was some apparent wiggle room in the Israeli position regarding the pre-1967 borders. However, Israel’s apparent flexibility was and is complicated by Abbas’s push for statehood. Israeli media reported that Netanyahu was willing to consider negotiations based on land swaps on the condition that Abbas and the Palestinians drop their statehood bid at the United Nations. “I am prepared to meet Abbas at any moment – even tonight,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “However, this will not happen, because the Palestinians want to go to the UN no matter what, and declare a state without making compromises.”
Along with complications resulting from President Obama’s call for negotiations to be based on pre-1967 borders, negotiations between the Israeli’s and the Palestinians stagnated following a reconciliation agreement reached between Fatah and Hamas. Unless Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, disavows its staunch anti-Israeli rhetoric and clamps down on extremists within its own ranks, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are unlikely to proceed.
Underpinning all this potential drama is the essential fact that egos and identity politics defines the process. Israel, the regions largest and most stable democracy, is largely an isolated state surrounded by governments that are undergoing significant internal changes resulting from the Arab Spring. In truth, it is likely that the Israeli’s would prefer to have this issue settled. What complicates their internal logic is that their negotiating partner, Abbas, must deal with Hamas and a populace who for too long has been mired in poverty and represented by corrupt and inept leaders.
As for the United States there are three options. Support Abbas’s bid, veto his effort or abstain on the Security Council. The U.S. is unlikely to abstain or vote in favor and has expressed its intentions on how it intends to vote. Whatever the Obama administration decides it clearly must press ahead and pressure the Palestinians and Israel to return to the bargaining table. Abbas’s effort at the U.N. is a political calculation and holds no hope in actually jump-starting the peace process. It very well could have the adverse affect. Additionally, the effort runs the chance of worsening the lives of the Palestinians throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with U.S. lawmakers threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority and the U.N. itself.
“A record number of lawmakers — 81 total — from both parties are making the rounds in Israel in advance of a hotly contested vote for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations next month…Members of both parties are already threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian territories in the event the vote takes place this September, and some lawmakers are ready to cut off funding even after the United States vetoes it at the U.N. Security Council,” Marin Cogan writes in Politico.
For outside observers, the barriers to resolving the current impasse rely on common sense approaches. The Palestinians, and in turn, Hamas would have to put aside innate ideologies for the common good. Israel would have to cede certain territories seized in 1967, but in turn, they would gain new territory in the process. The outcome of the Palestinian effort next month at the United Nations, highlighted by hours of intense debate, is likely to be the equivalent of “must see television” and will give C-Span 2 its highest ratings in years.