Joel Brinkley (Opinion)
July 26, 2011 - 12:00am

HAIFA, Israel -- Around here, everyone is deeply concerned about September. In fact, that's just about the only thing anyone is talking about.

For Israelis and Palestinians, September is the universally understood shorthand for the likely United Nations vote that month on whether to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state. Right now, Israeli and Palestinian officials are traveling to European and other capitals, furiously soliciting votes. But no one on either side of the debate doubts that a majority of the U.N.'s 192 member states will vote with the Palestinians.

"We have no chance of winning," said Ron Dermer, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shaking his head. "We have maybe 30-40 countries on our side."

In theory, the General Assembly vote is merely symbolic. It holds no force of law. Still, both sides predict grievous consequences -- a sustained international legal assault on Israel, and at the same time deep frustration and possible violence among Palestinians when the vote does not instantly create a fully sovereign state.

After the vote, senior Israeli officials predict, the Palestinians will take their case to the International Criminal Court, charging Israel with war crimes and other assorted infractions.

Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, insists that's not true. "The ICC is not a forum we can join until we are a state," he said, adding that the Palestinians aren't pursuing that as their goal in any case.

But Fayyad is rather isolated in his own government, and others see it differently. Daniel Geron, a senior attorney specializing in international law in the Israeli Justice Ministry, noted that "a General Assembly vote is insufficient to establish statehood," but the ICC and other organizations might choose to accept the Palestinians anyway. After all, the ICC is an independent body; 116 nations are members -- most of the same nations that will have voted in favor of Palestinian statehood in the U.N. General Assembly.

From there, Israeli officials predict, the Palestinian Authority will seek out other legal and political forums from which to continue its political war against Israel. Trying to forestall this, a few days ago Netanyahu declared his willingness to reopen peace negotiations immediately. "Everything is on the table," he averred.

But just a few weeks earlier, he told the United States Congress that he would never be willing to negotiate territory based on the 1967 lines -- the current Israel-West Bank border established at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Netanyahu took affront in May when President Obama offered that as the starting position for territorial negotiations, with mutually agreed upon "land swaps." But here's a little-noticed fact: This has been United States policy since 1967, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated that in future negotiations "the Israeli border along the West Bank could be 'rationalized'; certain anomalies could easily be straightened out with some exchanges of territory, making a more sensible border for all parties." At that time, Israel conditionally agreed. But don't expect much from Netanyahu's last-minute gambit now.

At the same time, in the West Bank the Palestinian leadership may be setting up a crisis of their own. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki found in a recent survey that "the public supports the September process," but "the minute the leadership returns from New York, Palestinian youths expect them to begin exercising absolute sovereignty."

Fayyad throws up his hands as he declaims: "I can't deliver!

"That's not my thinking about September at all -- assert absolute sovereignty unilaterally." The truth is, he added, "the day after the vote will in no way be any different, the same as the day before." Fayyad has publicly criticized Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, for raising public expectations. All of the public discussion "is based on a false premise. What I find objectionable is that this has not been explained to the Palestinian people."

Both he and Israeli officials worry that the misunderstanding will bring disappointment, anger and possible violence when little if anything changes on the ground.

"The public is a lot more radical about September than the leadership is," said Shikaki. His most recent poll of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, in June, found that 80 percent favored asking the U.N. for "recognition of a Palestinian state."

"This thing could snowball," said Naor Gilon, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official.

As the "September" initiative leads inexorably toward a showdown that could turn violent, both sides hold blame -- Palestinian leaders for raising expectations that cannot be met, Israelis for making only disingenuous proposals for peace.


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