Carlo Strenger
Foreign Policy (Opinion)
June 13, 2011 - 12:00am

Historical dates often emerge by sheer coincidence. In 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad formulated an operational goal for his tenure: by 2011 he wanted to build institutions that would justify the proclamation of a Palestinian state. This would not just have symbolic value, as PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat's statement in 1988, but would carry practical implications. Fayyad's efforts have commanded international admiration. The West Bank is indeed run in a way that meets many criteria for successful statehood. As opposed to the past, funds are used responsibly and accounting standards are transparent. The security forces -- originally trained by U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton -- are remarkably effective. Both the Palestinian population and the Israel Defense Forces rely on them more than ever. Hence, September 2011 began to crystallize as a realistic date for the founding of a Palestinian state.

Fayyad's 2011 deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood had acquired enormous importance, even though Fayyad never connected it to the bid for U.N. recognition. It has provided Palestinians with a political horizon and a strong motivation to try the route of peaceful resistance and reliance on the international community's support for the new state. The idea of turning to the U.N. for recognition of Palestine seems not to have been a long-term strategy; it emerged as an option faute de mieux, in the absence of negotiations, and without reasonable hope that Netanyahu has the will or the mandate for a meaningful Israeli compromise.

Such is the irony of history. The Palestinians may have more or less stumbled into the idea of requesting U.N. recognition. But whether they realize it or not, they are currently in the driver's seat of history. The question is whether they will use their historical opportunity or whether they will suffer from a failure of nerve, as recent reports indicate.

Talk about this bid has built enough momentum to be something of a fait accomplit in international diplomacy and among pundits. President Obama has publicly opposed such a move repeatedly and even raised it as an issue with European leaders. It will undoubtedly put him in an unpalatable position. As U.N. General Assembly President Joseph Deiss explained, full membership in the U.N. can only be achieved when there is a majority recommendation from the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. has Veto power.

For Obama, this is a catch 22. If he doesn't use the U.S.'s veto power in the U.N. Security Council, AIPAC and Christian Zionists will accuse him of having dumped Israel. These groups, which constitute a formidable electoral power, are likely to cause considerable political trouble domestically, creating a nuisance in his reelection campaign. If he does make use of his veto power and precludes full Palestinian U.N. membership, his support for Arab democratization will no longer be credible, as the Palestinians are possibly the most serious test-case of such support. This would force the Palestinians to go through the more circuitous road of seeking recognition in the U.N. General Assembly: it would not provide them with full membership, but would give them powerful moral support, and potentially some legal means against the occupation, even though this is not yet quite clear.

The problem is that the price of the Palestinian leadership's backtracking would be enormous: with Netanyahu in power, no meaningful compromise is possible. Most of the Likud party that he heads is against a Palestinian state, and so are most of his coalition partners in the Knesset. If September 2011 goes by not with a bang but with a whimper, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad will lose whatever credibility they have acquired in their own constituency. If the moderate Palestinian leadership does not achieve a tangible success, the option of armed resistance against Israel might gain popularity, even though, as Abbas admitted, it has proven disastrous for the Palestinians. A return to violence would bring exorbitant damage to all sides involved, particularly at a time of great instability in the Middle East.

September 2011 is a train the Palestinians can no longer jump. If anything, they should build up towards this as an historical event. One of the catastrophes of Palestinian historical memory is the Black September of 1970, in which more than ten thousand Palestinians were killed in Jordan. Abbas might well claim that he is moving towards the Palestinian "White September," in which the U.N. General Assembly formally recognizes Palestine. In another ironic twist of history, Palestinians may well turn this into a historic date comparable to the status that November 29, 1947, has for Israel, when the U.N. General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine.

Of course after the September recognition, the Palestinian leadership is likely to suffer from reprisals from Israel. Israel will probably reduce freedom of movement for the Palestinian political and business elite. Relations with the U.S. might suffer in the short run. We are also likely to see an increase in settler violence against Palestinians as they see that the international community is closing in on Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Because Israel under Netanyahu is not likely to comply with the U.N. recognition, the Palestinian leadership will have to think about ways to maintain momentum after September. Mahmoud Abbas has already indicated that he might turn to international courts, and probably the path of non-violent resistance would gain Palestinians further points and increase pressure on Israel from the international community.

But none of this is easy to implement, and the effects are difficult to predict in the volatile Middle East. It would be understandable if the Palestinian leadership is frightened by the short-term disadvantages of U.N. recognition. Nevertheless, the price of not carrying through their plans outweighs these short-sighted concerns.

How will the U.N. recognition of Palestine impact Israel? Maybe the day will come when Israelis will realize that U.N. recognition of Palestine is crucial for Israel's long-term security and viability. But for the time being the Netanyahu government keeps claiming that it would be a catastrophe. This, even though several veteran diplomats have indicated recently, cooperation would be far more productive.

In the short run, Palestine's White September is likely to reinforce Israel's move to the right. Many Israelis will buy into the line that Netanyahu has been using lately. He keeps repeating that the conflict with the Palestinians is not about the 1967 borders, i.e. about Israel's occupation of the West Bank, but rather about 1948 -- the legitimacy of Israel's very existence. The question is what can be done to keep this backlash in bounds and to prepare the ground for a future Israeli government that is more amenable to historical compromise with the Palestinians.

In terms of the international community, European support would add significant weight to the UNGA's recognition of Palestine; particularly France and Britain will be critical. Similarly, Germany falls into this category, though because of its tragic history with the Jewish people Berlin will probably feel uncomfortable endorsing the recognition of Palestine if it is seen as an anti-Israeli move. Along with the British and French, they could make their support for U.N. recognition of Palestine along the 1967 borders conditional upon the proviso that these would now be recognized as Israel's uncontested borders as well. The latter statement is crucial because it would have the all-important effect of calming Israel's deep fears that a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders is but one step towards what some fear is a hidden goal of abolishing Israel as the homeland of the Jews.

Ideally, of course, the U.S. would join Britain and France in such a move. Ideally, Washington would refrain from exercising its veto in the Security Council, paving the way for full Palestinian membership to the U.N. This would empower a future Israeli government in convincing the settlers that the state of Palestine is a fact. It could reassure Israelis that Palestine's existence would be balanced by the reinforced international legitimacy of Israel's 1967 borders. But we do not live in an ideal world, and Obama is likely to cede leadership in the Middle East peace process until after his reelection.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017