The National (Opinion)
September 19, 2011 - 12:00am

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's momentous decision to seek statehood at the United Nations has been interpreted in many ways: a bold, decisive move to force Israel's hand and level the playing field in future negotiations; a risky diplomatic gambit that will achieve little in the face of a certain US veto and will fuel tensions in an already volatile environment; a watershed moment in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. Mostly, however, the move is an acknowledgement of failure.

It acknowledges the failure of nearly 20 years of peace processes from Madrid to Oslo to Washington, from Cairo to Hebron to Wye River, from Taba to Beirut to Camp David. It acknowledges Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's failure of imagination and failure of vision, an intransigence that seems anachronistic in today's environment, especially when some of Israel's most hard-bitten former security and defence chiefs have publicly called for more active diplomacy toward a two-state solution.

It acknowledges the failure of the historic opportunity offered by the peace initiative of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, first proffered in 2002, a dramatic move toward full Arab state recognition of Israel. In 1967, in a Khartoum Arab League summit, the attendees outlined the famous three "No's": no to peace, no to negotiations and no to recognition of Israel. In Riyadh, in 2007, the gathered Arab heads of state said "yes" to all three.

It also acknowledges the failure of six US presidents beginning with Jimmy Carter who tried, in varying degrees, with varying intensity and with varying impartiality, to find that elusive goal of Israel-Palestinian peace.

More specifically, it acknowledges the failure of President Barack Obama, a man whose election engendered nearly as much hope in the international arena as it did at home. But Mr Obama has found both at home and abroad that soaring rhetoric is not enough to change the most stubborn facts on the ground: one of which has been Mr Netanyahu's unwillingness to rein in the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

And thus it fell to Mahmoud Abbas, a colourless Fatah bureaucrat who wound his way to the top through caution and patience and patronage, to make good on the oft-threatened "UN state option". Indeed, as the International Crisis Group, a global think tank based in Brussels, pointed out in a recent report, there is some irony there. Mr Abbas is "the Palestinian leader traditionally most invested in bilateral negotiations" and "least persuaded by attempts to circumvent them" and yet he is presiding over "the most intense and determined effort to extract UN endorsement of statehood".

Mr Abbas made a simple argument when he made his announcement in Ramallah, broadcast live on Al Jazeera television: Palestine needs a seat at the UN, so it can negotiate with Israel as a fellow state. Mr Netanyahu and hard-line members of his coalition have cried foul, even suggesting that the move could do permanent damage to the peace process.

In a revealing piece in the Jewish American newspaper The Forward, the columnist JJ Goldberg noted that the vast majority of former top Israeli defence and intelligence officials basically endorse a Palestinian state with borders roughly along pre-1967 lines. Of the six living former Israel Defence Force chiefs, he notes, all but one "favour a Palestinian state with borders based, either now or eventually, on the 1967 lines". He goes on to note that of six living former Shin Bet chiefs, all but one agree. And of seven living ex-Mossad chiefs, "the three oldest haven't spoken out lately; all the others publicly support the positions described".

Goldberg goes on: "Think about it. These are the people who have overseen Israel's defence for more than a generation. The military chiefs believe, almost unanimously, that Israel could be secure living alongside a Palestinian state with adjusted 1967 borders. The intelligence chiefs believe almost unanimously that the Palestinians would settle for what Israel can safely give. They all believe Israel would be safer that way."

And yet, despite this growing consensus of Israel's "securocrats", as Goldberg called them, and despite the historic shift in Arab state opinion as outlined by the King Abdullah plan and despite the growth of a responsible, moderate Palestinian government led by the PA's Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank, we still find ourselves facing a dramatic showdown at the UN that threatens to unravel the process of bilateral negotiations, which remains the only realistic path to a sustainable deal.

So, why are we at this point? Mr Abbas has not hid his frustration with the Obama administration nor his belief that Mr Netanyahu is not serious about peace. And once the Palestinian Authority floated the statehood trial balloon, it was hard to pull it back - even if they wanted to do so - without losing face. The argument coming out of Ramallah is: What other choice do we have?

As Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, put it: "Israel, and friends of Israel, really ought to open their ears to this. We may be seeing the closing of a door."

When Mr Abbas hands the statehood application to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon as he promised, he will be both making history and acknowledging the failures of the past 20 years of history. Television lights will pop, diplomats will scramble, headlines will scream, but Israel and Palestine will likely be no closer to a peace deal.

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior adviser at Oxford Analytica. He is on Twitter at @afshinmolavi


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