As the Palestinians prepare to unveil Thursday a draft of their resolution requesting United Nations’ recognition next month of an independent Palestinian state, many analysts believe such UN action is not inevitable.
“There are efforts being made to avoid the slide to September,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute. “Whether it will be successful or not I don’t know, but there are countries that would like to avoid [a UN vote] and would like to know that once talks begin, there is a basis for continuing them.”
Makovsky, who returned last Friday from a visit to the region, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “lost the battle over the idea that you can just sit and talk. He has lost Europe on this idea, not just the Palestinians, who don’t believe Netanyahu is sincere about it.”
He said the question now is “whether there is a formula” the Palestinians and Israelis could agree to in advance that would jumpstart the talks.
Such a formula may yet be developed by the Quartet — the U.S., the UN, Russia and the European Union. Its representatives met in Washington two weeks ago, but failed to agree on how to proceed nine months after direct Israeli-Palestinian talks ended.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly asked the Quartet to support a general declaration of two states for two peoples — a Palestinian state and Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. President Barack Obama called for such a two-state solution in his May address to AIPAC and suggested using the pre-1967 border — along with land swaps — as the basis for starting negotiations.
Makovsky said he believes Netanyahu has “come a long way on that, and could accept enough” of the plan that it could be used as the basis for negotiations.
“It will not mean that [Netanyahu] agrees with every word, but I think he is trying to make strides to find common ground,” Makovsky said, adding that the Quartet statement must contain an explicit recognition by the Palestinians of a Jewish state and Netanyahu’s agreement to allow the ’67 lines to be the basis of the talks.
“It’s clear that many European nations … would like to get a clean Israeli ‘yes’ as a way to get a clean Palestinian ‘yes,’” he said, adding that such a formula would allow the Palestinians a graceful way to back away from a UN vote.
“If we assume the Palestinians are not looking for a confrontation with the U.S., that the Israelis don’t want to be isolated [by the UN], and that the Europeans know that if one separatist group could go to the UN for recognition others could too, people are not that enthusiastic about [a UN vote],” Makovsky said.
There also appears to be a growing recognition of the dangers of such a UN vote. Ziad Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote in an op-ed last week in the Washington Post that there could be “significant negative consequences for all parties” and he encouraged a compromise to avoid it.
As the date for such a UN vote nears, Asali said it is now clear that the U.S. would veto a request in the Security Council for UN membership; Congress would cutoff U.S. aid to the Palestinians; Europe is divided over the issue; Israel is threatening unspecified retaliation, and there is a “significant danger of widespread outrage among the Palestinians if a UN effort fails, with serious potential for unrest.”
“Outrage can also be expected if a UN initiative succeeds but produces no improvement or even leads to deterioration in Palestinians’ living conditions,” he added. “The significant gains that Palestinians have made recently in building institutions and preparing their state must not be put at risk.”
The possibility that thousands of Palestinians would stage demonstrations in the territories against Israel following the UN vote is “a very realistic one,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies & Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“What if there are peaceful demonstrations by Palestinians who would like to demonstrate in areas [of the West Bank] now under Israeli control, especially areas that are near Israeli settlements?” he asked. “Are the Palestinian security forces going to protect them? What if they tried to block roads in the West Bank? What if the Palestinians decided to have a peaceful siege with thousands of demonstrators on the Jewish neighborhood of Hebron? Then what? This would be a major challenge on the ground the day after the UN vote.”
“They would not start out violent,” Meital said of the demonstrations. “But there is a potential for deterioration — and violence could erupt quickly.”
Asked about a July poll sponsored by The Israel Project that found that 80 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza said job creation should be the top priority of the Palestinian leadership, while only 4 percent listed the effort to declare a Palestinian state, Meital replied: “This is not necessarily a contradiction.”
“The vast majority are concerned about jobs and the same majority would like to challenge [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] by putting pressure on him to show how he translates this international recognition into moves on the ground that reflect the new situation,” he said.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he doesn’t foresee an outbreak of violence following the UN vote.
“I say go ahead, do the resolution, and three weeks later it will not have made any difference,” he said. “There will not be a regional war, as some have predicted.”
“There is an undercurrent of what Israel would do if they went ahead with this,” Steinberg said, referring to reports that the Netanyahu government was considering voiding the Oslo peace accord or annexing settlements. “I don’t think it’s serious but rather is part of the political theater going on — threat, counter-threat. It’s more directed at the Europeans and the UN than anybody else. … And the Palestinians may pull back at the last minute. It’s all part of the theater.”
Should Israel cancel the Oslo Accords, it would no longer be obligated to give the Palestinians food, fuel, water or anything, according to Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer in the Department of Arabic Studies and a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“Israel could provide them whatever it wanted on an individual basis but not as a state in the making,” he said. “And they then could forget about the refugee issue and Jerusalem. They would have to live with what they had. In my view, Israel should let them create six city-states in the West Bank and Israel should stay in every area to make sure they don’t fall into the hands of Hezbollah or Hamas.”
“The minute the Palestinians go to the UN by themselves without Israel, they are abrogating the Oslo Accords, which clearly state that an agreement must be made by the two sides and that neither can go to an outside international body without the agreement of the other,” he added.
Kedar too said there is a chance the Palestinians “might get cold feet and not go at the last minute. So far most of them sound determined to go, although there are voices inside the Palestinian Authority who are saying the price for this action might be too high to pay” in terms of the repercussions.
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