Raghida Dergham
Dar Al-Hayat
September 23, 2011 - 12:00am

The traditional rules of the ‘peace process game’ changed this week in New York. This is taking place in the wake of the stances taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. While the Palestinian bid for full membership at the United Nations is the form they have taken on, the essence of Abbas’s position essentially involves foreclosing the ‘peace process’ in its anesthetic capacity. The Palestinian-American relationship is now in a different phase, as Abu Mazen has persisted in his pledge to seek membership for Palestine at the Security Council, where the U.S. veto lies in store. Western pressures were then stepped up to the point of intimidation, warning that the nine required votes for the adoption of the resolution on Palestinian membership may not be possible, as the Europeans are being lobbied to abstain from the vote so that the U.S. President Barack Obama would not be compelled to veto the resolution.

The confusion of the Europeans and the U.S. administration sent conflicting and mixed messages, but the Palestinian President did not backpedal from his strategy seeking ‘full membership’ for Palestine, while keeping the door open to negotiations over other formulations that would include for enhanced observer status for Palestine at the UN, through a resolution passed at the level of the UN General Assembly. After this tug of war, equally taking place among the Americans, Palestinians, Europeans and the Arabs, reached a critical stage, Obama decided to meet Abbas even though his schedule had not included this meeting. For one thing, Obama has realized that Abbas did not want to embarrass him personally during his presence in New York to partake in the 66th session of the General Assembly. Abbas had avoided submitting his membership bid early on to the Secretary General and the Security Council, and avoided heading to the General Assembly to seek ‘observer’ status while heads of states are present in New York. In such a manner, Abbas avoided embarrassing Obama personally, so perhaps the U.S. President has realized that the timing chosen by the Palestinian President to hand in his request for full membership to the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was not intended to start a confrontation. Instead, the aim is to restart the ‘peace process’ in a different direction, so that it does not remain trapped in a limbo of promises. Perhaps Abbas’s strategy from the beginning was to put an end the complete standstill in the negotiations, by invoking the question of Palestinian membership of the UN, as a way of letting all parties concerned know that there is a new trend in the thinking of the Palestinian leadership. What’s new is that there is now another method of securing Palestinian rights, not through an armed intifada, but through the bodies of international justice that the Palestinians can resort to in the face of Israeli violations that amount to war crimes or collective punishment by an occupation force. This does not mean abandoning negotiations, but rather doing away with the likes of the Quartet, whose feats include appointing Tony Blair as an inept envoy, and becoming a dispenser of vapid statements and a prevaricator that obstructs the tackling of issues on the ground. It also means that the Palestinian leadership is no longer willing to be a hostage to the electoral process in the United States. It may also mean that the Palestinian leadership has hit a dead end with the Obama administration. True, the President is compassionate and has good faith, but the man designated by Obama to head the peace process team is none other than ‘Mr. Process’ himself, Dennis Ross, who used the peace process as a means to merely ‘manage’ the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, instead of seeking to find an earnest resolution on the basis of the two-state solution. At any rate, the important thing is that what has transpired in New York is nothing short of a reshuffling of cards that may not culminate with a confrontation, but rather an agreement over a framework that would ‘defer’ a decision over the application for membership deposited at the Security Council, while the application for Palestine to become a non-member observer in the UN would be thereby put to work, and serious efforts on a new basis would be exerted in the course of the peace process. Either this or it may culminate with a qualitatively new form of confrontation.

The plan that has been circulating this week is not based on the Palestinian President backtracking from his pledge and his bid to seek membership at the UN. Rather, the plan would acknowledge that Abbas has introduced an irreversible new equation, whereby he would submit a formal application to Ban Ki-moon for full membership at the UN. After that, the Secretary General shall refer the request to the Security Council.

What comes after that? According to the plan being circulated, the Security Council would be requested to ‘postpone’ a vote on the membership application to a later time. In the meantime, action would be taken at the level of the General Assembly to enhance the status of Palestine’s representation to a non-member state, which would have rights and privileges that include depositing a request to join the International Criminal Court with the UN Secretary General. This way, a crisis ensuing from the U.S. veto or European abstinence from the vote at the Security Council can be averted, and all those concerned with advancing the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations can move forward, seriously towards conclusion within one year, so that the peace process does not continue to be a long-drawn-out one with no end in sight. This was the practical gist of the proposals of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he presented in his speech from the General Assembly podium two days ago.

However, there is disagreement as to the legal interpretation of the two applications at the Security Council and the General Assembly. The legal opinion of the United Nations is that it is not permissible to apply for membership simultaneously at both the Security Council and the General Assembly. Subsequently, the fate of the bid for membership at the Security Council must be settled – as it would be irreversible once the Palestinian President hands it over to the Secretary General – and after that, a parallel bid may be launched at the General Assembly. Hence, as a result of this legal opinion, the U.S. veto or European abstinences may be averted.

However, there is another legal opinion that stems from an examination of the language of the Palestinian application in both the Security Council and the General Assembly. According to this view, the Palestinian President may request full membership at the UN for Palestine through the Security Council, while simultaneously requesting the General Assembly to grant Palestine the status of a non-member observer at the UN. A formulation as such would avoid the scenario precluded by the charter and rules of the United Nations, i.e. applying for ‘membership’ through both the Security Council and the General Assembly at once.

If this legal interpretation goes unchallenged or unhindered, it would then be possible to ‘delay’ the request for membership in the Security Council, rather than suspending it by depositing it at the council without a vote. In the meantime, it is possible to head to the General Assembly, where there would be enough votes to adopt a resolution raising the level of representation of Palestine, from ‘observer’ to an observing state. As soon as the status of Palestine is raised to that of a ‘state’, it would have the right to join international agencies, even if it were not a full member state of the United Nations.

This arrangement, if it is not hindered, will not be the end of road, but its beginning. The timeframe proposed by Sarkozy to restart the negotiations within one month and conclude them within one year, is the answer that Abbas sought when he went to the UN and declared that he will not back down on requesting full membership at the Security Council.

His main message was intended for the U.S. President, as if to say that the latter’s compassion, no matter how true, is not ‘legal tender’ when it comes to ending the occupation and establishing the Palestinian state. Perhaps Abbas has made a gamble when he put Obama in an embarrassing position, but perhaps he has helped him as well. For one thing, the Republicans are waging a disgraceful campaign against the Democratic candidate for the presidency, claiming that he is letting down Israel. It would benefit Obama to veto the Palestinian statehood bid at the Security Council, therefore, as this would pull the rug from under the feet of his Republican rivals. After the elections, things may be different, as there is increased awareness that the shelf life of the peace process has expired, and that it is now time to pursue other avenues. But while this is indeed the case with the international public opinion, such an awareness is completely absent from most members of the U.S. Congress, who are otherwise up to their ears in ignorance that will prove costly for U.S. national interests.

Abbas’s wager is not guaranteed to succeed and bring about the desired influence and effect, first of all because it may be met with retaliation in Congress by suspending funds, and second, as it may be exploited by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to advance his strategic and political objectives at the same time. In terms of cutting off financial aid from Congress to the Palestinian Authority, offsetting such a measure is being considered by Arab and Islamic leaderships, in fact, as was clear when Saudi Arabia provided 200 million dollars to the Palestinian Authority.

Here, it is the measures or ventures of Netanyahu that are a source of concern. The man may conclude that there can be no escape from the serious pursuit of peace up to implementing the two state solution, as it is now clear that the peace process, in its capacity as a sedative that prolongs the occupation and postpones the need to take a bold and courageous decisions, that this capacity has now come to an end. But then Netanyahu may exploit the Palestinian bid for membership at the UN – a natural right for Palestine if the two-state solution were honest and serious – to ignite a conflict that would enable him to impose a new reality in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel – where Netanyahu wants to see a radical solution to the ‘demographic’ problem. This solution, according to some Israelis, is not possible without a forced mass deportation of Palestinians within Israel that would render Israel a purely Jewish state, and this would be the equivalent of ethnic cleansing.

The wise men’s bet is on the world’s conscience, but no one knows how countries and governments are going to align themselves when a reality on the ground that challenges the United States and European countries, in terms of their automatic support for Israel, is imposed. An adventure like this will not be easy, even to the Israelis. There is a significant portion of the Israeli public that understands the frustration of the Palestinians, and is therefore calling for earnest efforts towards the two-state solution, instead of succumbing to a ‘process’ that has become futile. The United States may, temporarily or provisionally, withdraw from its role as a broker of Palestinian-Israeli peace, as the fact that it is a decisive ally of one of the parties to the conflict preclude the possibility of it playing the role of the honest mediator. Perhaps it will be beneficial for the Europeans to play an active role in the meantime, but this requires them to deal seriously with both of the parties to the conflict, with all the policy instruments available to them. It is indeed a difficult phase that is ahead, but it may be inevitable, and it could be either harmful or constructive. It is in any case a phase of reshuffled cards and rules for the peace negotiations process. The Palestinian President has always maintained that he opposes an armed third intifada, as this in his opinion would lead to the slaughter of the Palestinians. What he did in New York this week was almost a civil intifada, through international bodies and frameworks, an intifada against the ‘peace process’ role of sedation and furtherance of the occupation. It is a civil intifada against the occupation through the channels of justice, but one whose outcome remains unknown.


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