President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all played mainly to their domestic political bases at the United Nations General Assembly meeting last week. Despite the drama, nothing in the basic discourse has changed, no party shifted its bottom-line positions, and none of it brought us any closer to peace or improved the situation on the ground.
Abbas gave a rousing speech articulating the Palestinian narrative and case for independence, but didn’t offer any outreach to the Israeli public. Netanyahu gave a defiant speech, including denouncing the UN as a “house of lies” aimed mainly at securing his leadership of the Israeli right. And Obama — who offered empathy to Israel and the Jewish narrative but none to the Palestinians — was essentially defending himself from a relentless attack from the Republican right on his Israel policies.
All three leaders emerged from the UN meeting politically strengthened, but the prospects for peace were not. Netanyahu marshaled Israel’s international assets to nip the Palestinian bid for full UN membership in the bud. The application will no doubt be referred to the 15-member Membership Committee, which meets and votes in secret and which requires unanimity to refer the application back to the Security Council for a possible vote. Past precedent shows this process can take years. Even if Palestinians decide to push for a vote in the Security Council, and can secure an at-present uncertain nine-vote majority, the Obama administration is publicly committed to vetoing their membership.
Caught between the rock of Israeli occupation and the hard place of (at least thus far) failed diplomacy, the Palestinian leadership sought recourse at the UN, knowing full well they were risking a damaging confrontation with the United States over a potential veto. By submitting a formal application for full UN membership, Abbas may appear to have taken a confrontational approach, but in fact the Palestinians have left an important opportunity for compromise open by not demanding any immediate vote or action.
That opportunity is best represented by the statement of the Middle East Quartet issued to coincide with the Abbas and Netanyahu speeches. It is clear that the Quartet has not resolved its differences which have emerged over the past year, particularly the question of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state,” but this body remains the most promising venue for creating a new framework, and even terms of reference, for future negotiations when political realities adjust to allow for their resumption with a reasonable prospect of success.
While the resumption of such negotiations will depend a great deal on improvements in internal Palestinian and Israeli political conditions, and especially on the resolution and outcome of the US presidential election, it is imperative that the prospects for a genuine two-state solution are preserved, and even enhanced. To achieve peace, Israelis and Palestinians must move beyond binary worldviews that cast each other simply as enemies in order to appreciate the complexity and interdependence of their relationship, not only now but into the future.
This means, first and foremost, preserving, protecting and enhancing the gains made on the ground in the occupied West Bank by the Palestinian institution-building program led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Many members of Congress from both parties and Republican presidential candidates have been irresponsibly calling for a cut in US funding to the Palestinian Authority and any international organizations that accord upgraded status to the Palestinians.
Nothing could be more shortsighted than threats by grandstanding members of Congress to cut US aid to the PA, the single biggest source of external funding for the Palestinians, which would undermine the legitimacy of the moderate, secular, nationalist leadership in Ramallah and ultimately threaten the viability of both negotiations and negotiators.
It would jeopardize the important cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces that has greatly reduced violence and restore law and order in some key areas of the West Bank. It could undermine, perhaps fatally, the credibility not just of individual political leaders but the whole Palestinian national strategy that seeks the establishment of an independent state living alongside Israel in peace, security and mutual dignity. And it would play directly into the hands of rejectionists forces like Hamas and the extreme settler movement that cling to a zero-sum mentality that seek a total victory of one party at the expense of the other.
It is evident that the status quo is untenable, the conflict has no military solution, and a negotiated agreement is the only alternative to continued conflict. The Israeli occupation must end and, in turn, Israel must become an accepted member of the community of nations in the Middle East. No Israeli, we hope, wants to occupy another people and no Palestinian, we believe, wants to be occupied. The few benefits the Israelis accrue from occupation (e.g., arable land, settlements, water resources) can be better secured through long-term arrangements with friendly neighboring countries, including a State of Palestine. Real “strategic depth” doesn’t come from belligerent occupation. It comes from an end of conflict.
Even though the presidential campaign is underway, Obama and his team should not shrink from urging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do the right thing and resume negotiations within a specific time frame and with clear terms of reference, which becomes the basis of a just and lasting peace. The Quartet statement was a welcome indication that serious diplomacy continues and a reasonable framework for resumed negotiations can be developed in the coming weeks, even if the actual resumption of talks may have to wait for a more propitious political environment on all sides.
Abbas and Netanyahu have returned to their countries with stronger political positions and therefore more leverage and leeway to take bold moves that help lay the political groundwork for the resumption of talks aimed at a fair compromise.
Regardless of what transpires at the UN with respect to Palestine’s membership, it must become the impetus towards increased commitment on the part of the international community to finally fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and the yearning of Israelis for peace and security. The parties cannot accomplish this on their own.
Now is the time for leaders on all sides to rise above politics and use their strengthened positions to begin the difficult, and probably prolonged, process for creating a more positive political environment that can eventually produce successful negotiations. Above all, the gains that have been secured on the ground through the Palestinian institution-building program and Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation — which are real and not theoretical — must not be squandered, but protected and enhanced.