Palestinians have let it be known that they are open to negotiation on a proposed UN Security Council resolution that imposes a deadline for ending the Israeli occupation. They are right to seek further talks. It has been suggested that the US will threaten to veto the existing draft, as submitted by Jordan on behalf of the Palestinians. Such an eventuality wouldn’t benefit either side or the cause of peace. But a compromise is also strongly in the interests of the Americans.
In the absence of a viable political or diplomatic process for resolving the conflict and ending the occupation, the Palestinians are quite naturally frustrated. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA), in particular, need to find a way to demonstrate to their domestic constituency that their non-violent, diplomacy-led approach provides a viable framework for national liberation.
With the collapse of the peace talks earlier this year, and with Hamas having taken the battle to Israel last summer, the PA leadership is hard-pressed to demonstrate that its commitment to seeking a negotiated peace agreement with Israel remains viable. Hamas’s actions meant devastating results for Gaza but gave the undeniable impression of initiative.
The Palestinians have no doubt concluded that there is nothing left to lose in a return to the United Nations. The West and the United States cannot punish them by withdrawing from a helpful diplomatic process, because there isn’t one in place. And they may have calculated that the ability of the West and Israel to further constrict the PA budget in retaliation for UN initiatives can’t be taken very far. That would mortally hurt the PA and only benefit Hamas.
But they shouldn’t be overconfident. There is still a potentially serious price to be paid, even as there is a psychological and political benefit from driving the agenda at the UN.
The Palestinians have an unusual opportunity to negotiate something meaningful with the Americans, who are clearly exasperated with Israel over its intransigence on the peace process in general and settlement activity in particular. Some key Arab states have been counselling caution, for good reason. Brinkmanship that leads to a positive agreement with the Americans on language would be useful, but will require great skill.
The UN, after all, has been the scene of several recent quixotic diplomatic charges by the Palestinians, which have done more harm than good. Strained relations between Washington and Ramallah date back to a UN Security Council draft resolution on settlements in February 2011. Even though the language of that resolution was drawn largely from disparate statements made by Obama administration officials, and previous administrations, the US wasn’t willing to back the use of the word “illegal” to describe the status of Israeli settlement activity under international law. This was an accurate description but the US was only prepared to accept the term “illegitimate.” When the Palestinians insisted that settlement activity be deemed illegal, the American veto was used, to the great annoyance of both sides.
Relations were not improved with the subsequent Palestinian statehood initiatives, first at the UN Security Council at the end of 2011, and then at the General Assembly in 2012. The first was mitigated by the fact that it was a failure, and the Palestinians could not even muster sufficient Security Council votes to require the US to cast its veto. But the second initiative, at the General Assembly for upgraded status for the PLO mission to that of “non-member observer state,” produced a significant financial and diplomatic backlash.
The western and Israeli retaliation affected the PA’s budget and greatly disrupted governance in the occupied West Bank, ultimately leading to the ousting of former prime minister Salam Fayyad.
Fatah cadres at home put him under tremendous pressure to go, while US secretary of state John Kerry wanted him to stay in office. So when he finally resigned, there was a powerful sense in same quarters both in the US and Israel that a terrible mistake had been made. It had. But it was too late.
Since Mr Fayyad’s departure, the crucial state and institution building project that he led has atrophied, and the reforms he championed have, in several important sectors, frayed.
The experience has been extremely damaging for Palestinians, for American policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, and for US-Palestinian relations. Any repetition of such a mutually damaging confrontation isn’t in the interests of either party now.
It’s clear that an early UN vote on the draft Palestinian resolution isn’t likely in the coming days, and that the process will be drawn out at least until January.
All parties have a clear interest in reaching an agreement over a text that can advance the prospects for peace, and reiterate the international community’s commitment to a two-state outcome between Israel and the Palestinians, but without further pointless damage to US-Palestinian relations. It’s never too late to begin to learn the lessons of history.