A UN resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood should produce a tangible gain for the Palestinians while providing some reassurance to Israelis, and, above all, be followed by maximum, collective restraint to prevent a cycle of mutual retaliation that would work to the detriment of all.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Israel and Palestine after the UN , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the upcoming Palestinian bid at the UN. It describes the path to the UN as a tale of collective mismanagement. Palestinian leaders, in a mix of ignorance, internal divisions and brinkmanship, oversold what they could achieve and now are scrambling to avoid further loss of domestic credibility. Israel, overdramatising the impact of a UN move and inclined to punish the Palestinians, has threatened to retaliate. The U.S. administration, unable to steer events, fed up with both sides, and facing a Congress that will inflict a price for any Palestinian move at the UN, just wants the whole thing to go away. It is pressing instead for a resumption of negotiations which, in the current context, are likely to collapse – making it a cure more hazardous than the ailment.
“‘September’ is now shorthand for a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, Israeli and U.S. retaliation and a trainwreck”, says Robert Blecher, Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project Director. “The preoccupation with the UN resolution and disproportionate energy invested in aborting it are getting in the way of clear thinking”.
A UN resolution has become a necessity because, without it, the Palestinian leadership will lose all credibility. But its content and aftermath must be carefully managed. The U.S., which for months has refused to engage on any UN text, so far has taken itself out of the running to craft a compromise. This leaves the Europeans, whose backing the Palestinians desperately want and who can leverage their support and urge all sides to avoid escalation. The EU has long sought to enhance its political role. Now it must live up to it.
The EU should push the Palestinians to forgo applying for full UN membership, which cannot succeed and would antagonise the U.S. Instead, Ramallah should be encouraged to take its case to the General Assembly, which should enshrine a two-state settlement’s basic principles (1967 lines with agreed, equal land swaps; Jerusalem as the capital of two states) in a way that addresses some core Israeli concerns (by providing for a negotiated solution that would end the conflict and result in two states for two peoples). It should upgrade Palestine’s status to non-member observer state. This would be a second-best option for Palestinians but signal support for statehood and possible participation in some international institutions.
Risks would remain. The U.S. and Israel fear Palestinians will press their advantage and, with non-member observer status, drag Israelis to the International Criminal Court. Israel could take its own measures, withholding the transfer of tax revenues or accelerating settlement expansion. An incensed U.S. Congress could halt assistance to the Palestinians. After the UN vote, it will be up to the EU and U.S. to counsel restraint on all sides and prevent the realisation of self-fulfilling prophesies of disaster.
“The possibility of a doomsday scenario is not to be entirely dismissed. It remains within the grasp of Palestinian, Israeli, U.S. and EU policymakers to ensure it does not come to pass”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “To that end, they will have to show far more wisdom and political savvy in extricating themselves from this mess than they displayed getting into it”.