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As Palestine Seeks Observer State Status, A Call for Restraint

By Andrew Wilson

In the final weeks before the anticipated vote in the UN General Assembly that will likely give Palestine observer state status, President Mahmoud Abbas and his government are hanging tough against U.S. and Israeli diplomatic pressure. Abbas, who intends to submit the resolution to the UNGA on November 29, knows the value of recognition as a state by the international community. He understands that the Palestinian people are willing to pay what may be an economic price for achieving the dignity and right to national self-determination that statehood confers.

In that regard, the atmosphere is already thick with threats of punitive measures. Israel has intimated a boycott of tax revenues and accelerating the pace of settlement construction. Americans are talking about cutting off aid and evicting the Palestinian delegation from Washington. Some Palestinians are already contemplating counter-measures if Israel goes through with its tax boycott, from the cancellation of security cooperation to mass demonstrations. Meanwhile, Hamas, not wanting to be left out, has stepped up rocket barrages of nearby Israeli towns, and Israel has responded with airstrikes and talk of a possible ground offensive.

The United States should exercise restraint, as should Israel. The UN resolution should be a historic step toward founding the State of Palestine. The last thing the world needs is a new set of measures and counter-measures to plunge the region back into another cycle of violence, quashing any opportunity to reap the good that could come at this monumental juncture.

The UN resolution brings hope, because it will provide the Palestinians with an acceptable platform upon which to enter into bilateral negotiations with Israel. As Abbas has stated, once the Palestinians have observer-state status, they will drop their precondition of a settlement freeze. Since the Israelis have shown no willingness to freeze settlement activity—in fact, they are accelerating it—this issue has become a stumbling block in the way of any serious negotiations. President Obama learned this the hard way, when the talks he attempted to broker early in his first term floundered on this issue.

Thus, to drop their precondition of a freeze will be a substantial concession by the Palestinians, especially when Israel continues to build settlements that progressively tighten the constraints of their life under occupation. Yet, they are willing to do so, based on the UN resolution that will set the boundaries of their state at the 1967 borders. On the strength of that resolution, Abbas says that he will be willing to negotiate without conditions, even though Israel continues to build settlements: “If it is possible to start talks on the following day (after acquiring the observer status), then we are ready for that,” he said immediately after a November 12 meeting with the Arab League.

In other words, passage of the UN resolution will create a diplomatic environment where bilateral talks can begin. The end of the logjam that has blocked progress toward a negotiated settlement is finally in sight. What could be more hopeful?

One can only presume that the United States and Israel are campaigning against the resolution because they do not see it as a prelude to negotiations, but rather as another Palestinian attack on Israel in this desultory, long-running conflict.

That the government of Israel would think this way is understandable, given Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters’ Manichaean mindset that sees Israel as a Jewish David standing against the world’s Goliath. This leads to an unfortunate tendency to lump all the nations surrounding Israel into one basket: “the Arabs.” Israelis remember that their 1948 War of Independence, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War were all fought against combined Arab armies. Never mind that the Palestinians were a mostly defenseless people caught in the middle; as the Arabs closest to home they became surrogates for the entire Arab threat. Hence, for Netanyahu, who is campaigning to isolate Iran, the Palestinians are little more than cannon fodder in the bigger existential struggle for Israel’s existence. He and other Israelis with a similar mindset naturally view a Palestinian state as a threat and only pay lip service to a two-state solution.

Yet for the United States, and the British as well, a two-state solution that brings peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been of primary national interest. Hence, they would do well to look more closely at Abbas’s purpose in proffering the UN resolution. Is it really just another diplomatic salvo in the long-running war with Israel, as the Israeli government maintains? Or can we take Abbas at his word, namely that UN recognition is but a prelude to a final, negotiated peace? 

The Palestinians face the dour reality that the expansion of Israeli settlements makes ever dimmer any prospect for a contiguous state along what are essentially the 1967 borders. They do not have the luxury of a sovereign nation as a base from which to continue a perpetual conflict with Israel. Israel can continue on a conflict footing indefinitely, but the Palestinians cannot. This is an important asymmetry, one that flies in the face of Netanyahu’s us-versus-them worldview.

The Palestinians’ eyes are focused on the prize: statehood. Since statehood, on paper, is meaningless without negotiating with Israel, they are not going to pass up negotiations, once circumstances are acceptable. The legitimacy of the UN resolution secures those circumstances by providing a counterweight to the settlements.

Abbas is ready to deal. Long ago, he settled on a state within the 1967 borders and abandoned the futile dream of a greater Palestine. In the last few days, Abbas indicated that he is willing to make a major concession on another of the Palestinian’s traditional demands, the Right of Return. On November 1 on Israeli television, he reminisced about life in the Israeli town of Safed, where he was born, and said, “It is my right to see it, but not to live there.” Abbas made this remark despite the furor it caused among his Palestinian base, who understood that by giving up his own right as a refugee to return to his hometown in Israel, he was, in effect, conceding the rights of all Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war to return to Israel.  

Given this concrete evidence of the Palestinians’ intentions, the United States would do well to step back from its current obstructionist stance. Great Britain and the nations of the EU would do well to embrace the UN resolution as a hopeful development, one that will pave the way for substantive negotiations with Israel. The PA is looking for at least 12 EU nations to support the resolution, hoping that some who voted against its admission into UNESCO last year will change their vote this time around.

Once the resolution is passed, the United States and the EU should use their influence on Israel to bring it to the negotiating table. They should also take measures to keep Abbas to his word.

All of this presumes that the level of vitriol and retaliation occasioned by the passage of the UN resolution can be kept to a minimum. Excessive recriminations and harsh punitive measures could set off a vicious circle of hostilities and scuttle what should be a hopeful opportunity. Moreover, for the United States to invoke financial penalties on the Palestinians now would squander American capital for influencing future negotiations.

Once President Obama understands the true significance of the UN resolution, he would do well to exercise leadership by restraining the American response and asking for restraint from Israel. This opportunity to lay the groundwork for peace talks should not be missed.

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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 Tijen Erol)

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