So finally the week of decision has arrived, and the Palestinian issue will be taken up at the United Nations. Claiming that the Palestinian appeal to the UN is bad for the peace process or is the death of Oslo rings hollow to me. There is no peace process right now if what one means by peace process is high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict. Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, we have only witnessed a few weeks of such talks. So it is bad for something that does not exist?
Moreover, criticizing President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA for turning to the UN because it is a unilateral move also seems odd because a) the UN is the world’s central multilateral institution and b) the UN stamp of approval in 1947 was and is a key building block for Israel’s statehood. In a related sense, if one wants the Palestinians to reject violence, shouldn’t they be permitted diplomatic, political, and legal moves? A Fatah leader quoted in the excellent Crisis Group report: “The world is telling us that we should be doing only peaceful resistance, but what we are doing at the UN is not even resistance, it’s just a legal move, and we are being told that even that is illegitimate. Is there anything that would be considered legitimate?”
The reason we don’t have a peace process is interrelated Israeli and Palestinian opposition. Think of it like a Mobius strip. The Netanyahu government, and the majority of Israelis who support that government, don’t believe in a genuine two-state solution, as I explained here. They oppose a negotiated, genuine two-state solution a) because it runs counter to the Greater Israel project in the West Bank including East Jerusalem – so ideological opposition – and b) because of Hamas. Israelis don’t think the PA can deliver a peaceful state of affairs given Hamas and the Hamas position suggests Palestinians are not ready for peace. The problems associated with the Oslo process (1993-2001) and Gaza Disengagement (2005) fuel and reinforce such sentiments. Of course, Hamas holds some political power in part because Israel has been unwilling to stop settlements and expansion and, with its current government, is disinterested in a two-state solution. Round and round we go.
I have a hard time seeing that this Palestinian move at the UN leads anywhere productive except in one unlikely scenario: If enough Israelis turn on their government because of Israel’s intense political isolation around the world and strained relations with the Obama administration. (Tom Friedman goes house on the Israeli government.) Plausible but unlikely because more political isolation reinforces an Israeli perspective that sees the world as aligned against Israel regardless of Israeli policy.
What will Abbas do after the UN meetings? Abbas: “The Palestinian people and their leadership will pass through very difficult times after” the UN move. Okay, what does that mean? The Palestinians could lose a lot financially if Israel cuts off the return of Palestinian tax revenue that Israel collects and the U.S. Congress blocks aid to the PA. However, Israel might not want to cut off funds if that jeopardized Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation; there is no simple all-good or all-bad option here regardless of one’s interests and viewpoint. The Israeli government fears, and has planned for, mass Palestinian demonstrations and possible violence.
Is it too late to avert a showdown at the UN? Probably, but maybe someone will pull a rabbit out of a hat: a softer UN resolution, a Quartet statement in lieu of a UN debate, a renewal of bilateral talks. Still, it does not seem likely.
Just to make sure things look and feel bleak, let me close with this excerpt from the Crisis Group report (pages 37-38). It explains the PA’s situation even before any UN action:
This comes atop other worrying signals concerning the PA. Since Prime Minister Fayyad announced a cabinet reshuffle the day after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, he has been unable to form a new government. The West Bank economy, economists say, has been softening; corruption investigations against two ministers are ongoing; and Fayyad has been demoralised by the way he was treated in the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process. The PA’s financial crisis – acute even without a cut-off of U.S. aid or halt in Israel tax transfers – is causing distress among its employees, especially given that financial obligations are heightened during the summer. In addition delayed salary payments are becoming harder to bear, since many PA employees have taken out substantial loans.
At the same time, security coordination with Israel reportedly has decreased somewhat. The next in a sequence of National Security Forces battalions to be trained in Jordan under U.S. supervision has been delayed; granting of permission for Palestinian security forces to move between various areas in the West Bank has been slowed; and decisions that were taken by Israeli field commanders have been kicked up the chain. The PA seems as intent as ever on combating crime and Hamas, but forward movement on security reforms has ceased. All of this has further shaken popular confidence in their leader’s ability to deliver and in ministers’ faith in their ability to govern. The most difficult consequences may be yet to come: “Our budget situation is absolutely debilitating. We are now working on a very serious austerity budget that could fairly be described as draconian”, a senior PA official said.