By Michael Sharnoff
Last month, senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath declared that negotiations between the Middle East Quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia) reached a deadlock and he chided special envoy Tony Blair as serving only Israeli interests. However, Shaath suggested that Palestinians could be encouraged to return to direct talks if Israel imposed a full settlement freeze and agreed that the 1967 boundaries would serve as the basis for negotiations. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to a partial settlement freeze to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table, but the gesture was rebuffed since it did not entail a total halt to all construction activity.
On November 11, the Security Council is expected to vote on Abbas’s controversial bid for the United Nations to recognize the state of Palestine along the 1967 boundaries comprising the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. However, attempts to bypass direct talks with Israel and gain recognition of Palestine appear to be backfiring. Britain, France and Colombia intend to abstain – which essentially counts as a rejected vote – and therefore it is unlikely Palestinians will secure a majority in the Security Council.
The Paradox of Palestinian Disunity and Reconciliation
In the event Palestinians gain a majority in the Security Council, the United States would be placed in a difficult position. If Washington uses its veto – which it has threatened to do – the bid would be rejected and the Palestinians would lack legal grounds to challenge Israel diplomatically. A US veto would be welcomed by Israel, which has insisted that peace can only be achieved through negotiations. However, blocking Palestinian statehood could also be perceived as hypocritical since Washington has professed its support for freedom, dignity and human rights during the Arab Spring.
Since the Johnson Administration, US policy has insisted that negotiations, not unilateral steps, are necessary to achieve peace. However, while the Obama Administration has made Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a priority, Palestinian physical and ideological disunity represents a critical stumbling block. Israel can negotiate with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, but this regime only represents some 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Abbas has no legal jurisdiction in the Gaza Strip and has recently been embarrassed and upstaged by Hamas’s success in securing the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier. Therefore, even if a hypothetical scenario arose in which Netanyahu agreed to all of Abbas’s demands to sign a peace agreement, there is no guarantee that Hamas would accept the legitimacy of an Israel-PA brokered settlement, allow for a power sharing government, agree to terminate their state of belligerency with Israel, or recognize its right to exist.
Paradoxically, while Palestinian disunity obstructs the possibility of a two-state reality, Hamas-Fatah unity poses challenges to both Israel and the United States. Israel has insisted that it will not directly negotiate with Hamas, which it views as a terrorist organization. Hamas is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department and deems it illegal for Americans to “knowingly provide ‘material support or resources’ to a designated FTO.” Even if such a unity coalition was composed of technocrats who are unaffiliated with Hamas, the Islamist radical movement would maintain its ideology whose short-term vision is the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital. It would still adhere to a long-term vision of liquidating Israel, facilitating the return of 5 million refugees and transforming Palestine into an Islamic state. Therefore, advocating dialogue with Hamas would further undermine Washington’s position.
Confronting Possible Post-UN Vote Scenarios
While it is unclear how Palestinians will respond if their request for international recognition fails, there are indications that they could respond both diplomatically and militarily.
On October 20, Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for Palestine to the UN, told the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayam that Palestinians would seek other options if the Security Council rejected their request. These options included soliciting additional diplomatic support to upgrade the Palestinians status from “observer entity” to that of a “non-member nation.” This title, which would enhance Palestinian recognition, would be granted by the General Assembly, from which the Palestinians would easily gain a majority of votes.
A more immediate concern is the prospect of Palestinian uprisings. Although Abbas has threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority on numerous occasions, Robert Serry, a UN Middle East envoy who keeps in close touch with the Palestinian President, cautioned that Israel should heed these warnings. Palestinians could pose a direct threat to Israel in the absence of diplomacy by mimicking the popular protests throughout the Arab world. The Arab Spring succeeded in removing dictatorial leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – with Syrian and Yemeni rulers fighting for their survival – and Palestinians could become emboldened to channel their rage against Israel.
This is not an unrealistic scenario given that Palestinians have previously launched two devastating intifadas against Israel (1987-1993 and 2000-2005). In March 2011, a Facebook page advocating a third intifada received over 40,000 signatures; some activists have called for peaceful protests against Israel while others have advocated the killing of Jews and Israel’s elimination. Facebook has since removed the page on the grounds that it promoted violence, but dozens of mirror group pages have surfaced with tens of thousands of members.
This scenario would place Washington in an untenable situation. An Israeli crackdown against protestors would be denounced internationally, and would make it difficult for the US to side with its long-time ally. It would be hypocritical for the US to support the aspirations of the people in the Middle East except the Palestinians. However, openly supporting Palestinian demands would undermine its relationship with Israel, and remaining neutral risks the possibility of backfiring by upsetting both sides.
For Israel, such a scenario would be a lose-lose situation. If Israel, confronted by thousands of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators, used force, it would be condemned internationally and risk facing charges of crimes against humanity. If Israel yielded to protestor demands, the government would be perceived as weak, and Palestinians might receive certain concessions without any security considerations for Israel.
What are the Alternatives?
In light of these realities, the prospect of reaching a comprehensive agreement which affects both the West Bank and Gaza Strip seems remote. The United States cannot effectively advance the two-state solution under current conditions, but it also cannot extricate itself completely from the peace process without risking a renewal of violence. Therefore, the US is left with limited options.
Perhaps the most realistic option under the current circumstances would be for Washington to convince Israel and the Palestinian Authority to negotiate a bilateral agreement affecting Israel and the West Bank. There is real incentive to reward Abbas and Fayyad’s West Bank government, which has improved security, built institutions and enjoyed economic growth in the past decade. A negotiated settlement loosely based along the West Bank borders with agreed upon land swaps could serve as an interim Palestinian state with genuine Palestinian independence and all that it entails – a capital, a sovereign judicial system, UN membership, and most importantly – pride. The US and the West would reward this pragmatic move with massive economic assistance.
The UN could work with Israel and the Palestinians to monitor such an agreement and allow an agreed upon time frame after the formation of a West Bank Palestinian state to determine whether similar conditions would be applicable for the Gaza Strip.
As long as Hamas refuses to accept the notion of a Palestine living in peace alongside Israel, continues abducting Israeli soldiers, and firing rockets, Israel should adopt new ways of convincing its leadership to moderate its policies. A West Bank-first approach could persuade Hamas that moderation does pay and if that does not work, there is a strong chance Gazans, who are technologically connected to events in the West Bank and neighboring countries, would demand that their leaders accept the West Bank model of moderation and pragmatism. In such a rapidly changing Middle East where dictators have either fled or been murdered by their people -scenarios virtually unthinkable just one year ago – the same fate could be brought to Hamas leaders if they fail to deliver real change and realistic aspirations to their people.
The current situation on the ground prevents the implementation of a two-state reality. Likewise, abandoning the peace process altogether poses the possibility of further turmoil, which would be disastrous for all sides. Therefore, to prevent an outbreak of violence if the UN bid fails, the US should work with Israel by promoting a West Bank-first approach. This would help stabilize the region by strengthening Palestinian moderates who seek to live alongside Israel in permanent peace. It would also pressure Hamas to abandon violence and radicalism after Gazans begin demanding that they, like West Bankers, deserve tranquility and independence.
Michael Sharnoff is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle East Studies at King’s College, London. His research focuses on Egyptian perceptions of peace after the 1967 War. This article appeared at the blog Middle East Insights.