The insistence by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he will
present a request for full UN membership for Palestine in its 1967
borders to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the General Assembly
meeting later this week – although telegraphed months in advance – has
sent shock waves through international relations, and Israeli and US
domestic politics as well.
Mr Abbas could have announced that he had already submitted this
letter and that it is a fait accompli. Instead, he gave world leaders
another week to act. So far Israel, the United States, the European
Union and the Middle East Quartet have provided him with virtually
nothing he can present to the Palestinian public as a plausible
Renewed negotiations, a new framework for talks or a statement clearly
outlining the contours of a two-state solution might have sufficed.
None of these have been forthcoming, but the window of opportunity is
There are genuine reasons of state for this Palestinian move, no
matter how risky and even potentially disastrous it might prove.
Palestinians simply cannot live with a status quo involving continued
occupation and expanding settlement with virtually no prospects of a
serious resumption of bilateral talks with Israel. The negotiating
process brokered by the United States looks incapable of overcoming
the impasse between the two sides and the sense that something drastic
is required to communicate the level of Palestinian desperation is
There are also domestic political considerations. The secular,
nationalist Palestinian leadership in Ramallah knows that if this
deadlock continues indefinitely, at some point Palestinian society
will conclude their strategy of achieving Palestinian independence
through negotiations with Israel, diplomacy and institution-building
has permanently failed. They will then look for an alternative, and an
Islamist one is already ruling in Gaza.
But the potential damage to the Palestinian national interest and
project can hardly be overstated. The Republican-controlled US House
of Representatives has made its willingness to slash or even eliminate
US aid, the single biggest external source of PA revenue, crystal
Israel too has threatened unspecified “harsh measures” in response. If
the Palestinians are gambling that the US and Israel will ultimately
conclude they need the Palestinian Authority as much as it needs their
cooperation, they may be in for a nasty surprise.
As Mr Abbas himself has repeatedly acknowledged, a negotiated
agreement is the only choice for the creation of a Palestinian state.
And there is no alternative broker other than the United States. A
crisis in relations with the Americans by provoking a veto in the
Security Council is unlikely to enhance the prospects for genuine,
rather than virtual, Palestinian statehood.
If Palestinians are confident that Arab states will make up any
shortfall from a cut in western aid or Israel withholding Palestinian
tax revenues, they may face another serious disappointment. In The New
York Times, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al Faisal said that his
country had “earmarked $2.5 billion [Dh9.2 billion]” for the
Palestinians since 2009. That may be true, but no such figure has
actually been delivered. Palestinians can expect generous pledges from
Arab states, but must doubt the extent to which they will be
fulfilled. And aid, if it is provided, would certainly come with
significant political strings attached.
The United States and Israel are plainly not going to provide the
Palestinians with any real alternative. The European Union, however-
which collectively gives more than twice what the US does to the PA
annually – finds itself uncomfortably divided among three camps: those
inclined to support, those which oppose and those that are ambivalent
about the Palestinian UN bid.
In its own interests, the EU has been working to find an alternative
formula in the General Assembly that it can unite behind and also
provide Palestinians with a significant upgrade in status. The major
stumbling block has been that upgrading Palestine to a non-member
observer state in the UN might give it access to the International
Criminal Court and other forums in which it could pursue charges
against Israel, which is unacceptable to some key European powers.
There has even been serious consideration of creating a new legal
status for Palestine that would make it a non-member state, or
something extremely close, but without access to these international
legal enforcement bodies. The Middle East Quartet has also been
working on a compromise to avoid a universally damaging confrontation.
It is still possible for Palestinians to make both their point and
advance their international status without a crisis in relations with
both the United States and much of Europe. Moreover a Palestinian bid
for full membership could be bogged down in the UN apparatus for
months or even indefinitely. A reasonable compromise is in everyone’s
Most important is the day-after scenario that will follow whatever
takes place at the UN this week. The worst thing that Israel, the US
Congress and others could do is cut funding to the PA, leaving
Palestinians on the ground tangibly worse off than they were before.
Frustration and despair could provoke an outburst of anger and even
violence, turning a difficult diplomatic mess into an unmanageable
political and security nightmare for Israel and the PA alike.
Any such move designed to “punish” the Palestinians is also likely to
backfire on Israel and the United States. Cooler heads should prevail
at the UN, but what is more important is to prevent an irrational
overreaction that takes a bad situation and makes it potentially