By Andrew Wilson
In a remarkable diplomatic development, the Palestinian leadership has signaled new flexibility in negotiating with Israel. At an October 9th, meeting with European diplomats in Ramallah, according to the Associated Press, President Mahmoud Abbas indicated his willingness to drop the longstanding demand that Israel freeze settlement construction as a precondition to peace talks after the General Assembly passes, as he anticipates they will, a resolution granting Palestine observer state status at the UN. As it is currently being framed, the resolution will include a clear definition of borders for the Palestinian state that includes the West Bank and Gaza. The UN resolution will provide Abbas with the diplomatic platform he needs to enter into negotiations with Israel, and give him room to drop the demand for a settlement freeze. Thus, a major sticking point that for the last four years has stood in the way of peace talks will be removed.
Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership team are to be commended for their new realism. Last year’s futile gesture to bring a resolution on statehood to the Security Council only angered the Americans and pushed them to use their veto. This year for the resolution at the General Assembly, the Palestinians are seeking to engage in sober discussions with the Europeans and other potential partners with the aim of gaining broad-based international support. Viewing the resolution in the context of the Palestinians’ new strategy for resuming peace talks should encourage many in the international community to be favorably disposed.
Signs that the Palestinians are looking for a way to bypass their demand for a settlement freeze were first seen on September 25th, when Abbas met with a group of Jewish leaders in New York, including Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, and indicated that he would accept the formula Dershowitz first proposed in June: that the Palestinians agree to begin negotiations as long as Israel freezes settlements once the talks have begun. This formula would take a freeze as a precondition for talks off the table—something Israel has long insisted upon—while testing Israel’s good faith to halt settlement construction during the talks. It would address Israel’s complaint that when it last froze settlement construction for ten months in 2009 at the behest of President Barrack Obama, the Palestinians took advantage of the situation by dithering and then claiming they wanted to negotiate just as the freeze was about to expire. Dershowitz said he came away from his discussion with Abbas convinced that “if Abbas and Bibi Netanyahu sit down and have serious talks, they will find their positions much closer than is widely believed.”
In Abbas’s September 27th speech before the UN General Assembly, after reciting the usual litany of Israeli violations, he announced his intent to be conciliatory: “We do not seek to delegitimize an existing state—that is, Israel—but to assert the state that must be realized—that is, Palestine.” This language was another indication that the Palestinians are seeking a way forward to begin talks with Israel.
Then, on October 9th, at a meeting with European diplomats in Ramallah, Abbas signaled that if the UN resolution is passed, he will back away from his longstanding demand for Israel to halt West Bank settlement construction before peace talks resume. The UN resolution will include definitions of the boundaries and the right to East Jerusalem as the capital city, according to PA executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi. Those specifications will give the Palestinians sufficient international support to push for a Palestinian state with acceptable borders in bilateral talks with Israel. Thus, if the UN passes that resolution in a vote slated for November 29th, Abbas will have a stronger hand to negotiate with Israel, regardless of the settlements.
What the Palestinians will not do in any negotiation is to permit Israel to dictate terms, which, with its military muscle, strong economy, and ability to establish “facts on the ground,” it would be in a position to do. In the past, their demand for a settlement freeze was a way to assert that they, too, could establish facts on the ground, and thus create some degree of parity. Unfortunately, they overplayed that hand in 2009 and Israel is not willing to let them do it again. Now, with the upcoming UN resolution granting Palestine observer state status and specifying its border at the Green Line, the Palestinians believe they will have gained enough parity with Israel that they can afford to give up their demand for a freeze. They are taking down their roadblock to talks, having found in the UN an alternative path to the same purpose.
The Palestinians are behaving pragmatically and constructively. They are opening the door to negotiations that could begin as soon as December. This development is leading the Quartet (the U.S., EU, Russia, and the UN) to think beyond their plans from last year, when they could not manage to bring the parties together, according to a time-line that had envisioned reaching a settlement by year’s end. Thus UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry expressed the Secretary General’s hope that the Quartet partners, in consultation with the parties, would chart a “new, credible political way ahead” in the coming months.
It remains to be seen how Israel will respond. Prime Minister Netanyahu has immersed himself in politicking for the just-announced elections slated to take place early next year, on January 22nd. If he plays to his settler base, he will not want to negotiate. Yet elections are a time of great fluidity in Israeli politics, and he might calculate that he would do better to move to the center. Entering into negotiations with the Palestinians would rejigger the Israeli political map, creating opportunities for another center–right alliance, as was attempted with Shaul Mofaz last spring. Domestic political considerations will weigh heavily on Netanyahu’s thinking, and in that regard there are more reasons than just the Palestinian situation why a center–right alliance may be attractive.
We will also be watching how the United States handles these developments. By late November, President Obama will either be a lame duck or a second term president. Either way, he will have great flexibility to craft a constructive American response without the worry of domestic politics. The current American stance at the UN, where, behind the scenes, its officials are reportedly attempting to scuttle the UN resolution, is not helpful. Let us hope the United States quickly realizes that the UN observer state resolution on Palestine is not just another unilateral move in the tit-for-tat diplomatic game; rather, the Palestinians intend it to be a constructive avenue forward to peace talks.
Peace talks between Israel and Palestine that lead to a two-state solution are in America’s best interest. It will not do for the United States to continue to parrot the timeworn Israeli line that makes concern for Israel’s security a cipher for discounting the Palestinians’ national aspirations. This time, the Palestinian UN initiative is a strategic move that will serve the cause of peace and our national interests at the same time.
The Palestinian offer to drop its precondition of a settlement freeze in tandem with achievement of UN observer state status indicates that they are making preparations on the world stage to enter into negotiations with Israel—if Israel is willing. A crucial opportunity for peace is in the offering, and it will be a shame to see it wasted for lack of resolute American leadership. America needs to step up to its historic role as an honest broker for peace by pressing Israel to take this Palestinian initiative with utmost seriousness.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
[Photo Courtesy of World Economic Forum]