The Middle East Channel

No choice but the UN for Palestinians

The Palestinian leadership seems determined to bring its case for statehood to the U.N. in September. The details remain unknown, but that hasn't stopped pundits and groups from staking out hard-line positions opposing the effort. These reactions consist of a lot of hype and some measure of hysteria. It's time for a dose of clear thinking and common sense. The reality is that some Palestinian initiative is almost certain to come before the U.N. in September. Palestinians have lost faith in the negotiated approach to the peace process, and have settled on this new strategy without asking for American or Israeli approval. Indeed, the hysteria they are provoking only makes the strategy more attractive given their inability to get a meaningful response to anything else they propose.

Those who are truly concerned about what that could mean for Israel should be pressing for bold U.S. action to avert a collision at the U.N., rather than simply criticizing the Palestinians and demanding that they desist. The bold action, for example, could be in the form of a serious initiative to re-accredit peace efforts and give the Palestinians a real reason -- not just a thin pretext -- to change course, or a U.S.-backed initiative to transform the proposed U.N. action on Palestine into something broader, like a Security Council resolution embracing key peace parameters. Absent such an effort, the Palestinians will have a hard time backing off their U.N. strategy, even if they want to. 

This should not be taken to mean that there are no reasons for concern. A U.N. resolution won't resolve the issues of borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem, nor can it end the occupation. It cannot build support on both sides for an acceptable final status agreement. Only negotiations that involve both Israel and the Palestinians can achieve these goals -- something that the Palestinian leadership itself has recognized.   

It's true too that taking the Palestinians' case to the U.N. involves risk -- for all sides. It could become a pretext for accelerated Israeli actions on the ground that could hasten the demise of the two-state solution, as well as the application of sanctions on the Palestinians. It could cost the Palestinians desperately needed American and international financial and political assistance. Moreover, it could strengthen rejectionists --Palestinians and Israelis alike -- who oppose peace negotiations and a two-state solution and who welcome confrontation and violence as a means of closing the door to both.

There are also risks for the United States and Israel. A crisis at the U.N. over Palestine would exacerbate the growing U.S. and Israeli isolation on the issue. U.S. credibility will take a hit if Washington is seen, once again, to be opposing a resolution that is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy; Israel could find itself in an awkward position, given that it was the U.N. that gave birth to Israel after Israel's founders went to that same body with their own demand for recognition. However unlikely, it is conceivable that U.N. action could even pave the way for sanctions and multilateral enforcement efforts against Israel and its citizens. 

But simply condemning the Palestinians and demanding that they desist, while browbeating other countries to get into line with the U.S. and Israel, is not an especially smart or effective counter-strategy. To push the Palestinian leadership in a different direction, the Palestinians must be offered a serious alternative way forward. Given Netanyahu's uncompromising May 2011 speech to the U.S. Congress and continued settlement expansion, do they have any reason to believe that negotiations offer such a route?  

Whether people think it is a good idea or not, the Palestinians have the right to take their case to the U.N. Opposition to the U.N. strategy must directly address difficult questions. Is their U.N. initiative consistent with longstanding U.S. policy regarding permanent status issues? Is it consistent with a negotiated agreement that can resolve the conflict? Do the Palestinians have meaningful alternatives?

The U.N. option doesn't represent, as some would suggest, a Palestinian betrayal of the peace process or a rejection of a negotiated resolution to the conflict. Rather, it reflects the almost universally acknowledged loss of credibility of the current negotiating effort. It reveals the Palestinians' understandable conclusion that, as things stand today, negotiations will never end the occupation or deliver statehood. It discloses the Palestinians' quite understandable fear that the situation is nearing a tipping point, after which expansion of settlements and settlement-related infrastructure in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will make the two-state solution unworkable.

While the Palestinians' decision to appeal to the U.N. reflects the failure of the peace process, the U.N. effort itself contains some extremely constructive -- and largely overlooked -- elements, like the fact that the U.N. effort appears to be predicated on a continued Palestinian commitment to the two-state solution and to a permanent status agreement that is consistent with longstanding U.S. positions, the Arab Peace Initiative and the Israeli Peace Initiative. And the point that is perhaps most important, is the fact that the entire effort reflects the Palestinian leadership's continued determination to achieve progress through non-violent means. These elements should be welcomed and embraced, rather than dismissed in the zeal to attack the Palestinians for their U.N. strategy.

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now

AFP/Getty Images

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