The Middle East Channel

September 23, 2011: A historic day for Israel-Palestine?

Ethan Frome

Cynicism and skepticism always have their place, but today might just go down as an historic day on the Israeli-Palestinian front. No, there is no direct or quick fix move from the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the actual realization of a Palestinian state (and certainly not when one factors in the Israeli response) but the Palestinian U.N. move does represent the most definitive break yet with the failed and structurally flawed strategies for advancing peace of many a year. Many Palestinians and others are now suggesting that the PLO leadership progress from the symbolism of September 23rd to a concerted struggle for their freedom centered on nonviolent resistance, diplomacy, and international legality, believing that this would finally deliver a breakthrough.

In its theatrics, today was rather predictable -- other than the Quartet statement of the afternoon, on which more in a moment. The speeches of Abbas and Netanyahu held few, if any, surprises. Abbas played to the Palestinian community at home and around the world, and to the rest of the international community.

Abbas spoke to the refugee experience, including his own, while leaving wiggle room for a future solution and embracing the Arab Peace Initiative on this score. He clarified that the PLO would continue to represent all Palestinians until all issues are definitively resolved, urged that this not become a religious struggle (pushing back on Netanyahu's attempt to make this about a Jewish state), and linked the Palestinian struggle for rights to the so-called Arab Spring, albeit something that will have to be born out in reality beyond the made-for-TV pictures from Ramallah's town square.

Abbas could also not have been more explicit on this being a Palestine alongside Israel, on the 67 lines, on only 22% of Mandatory Palestine -- and thus calling the lie on Netanyahu's claim that Abbas wants to have a state that would come at Israel's expense, replacing Israel.

Netanyahu was playing to the Israeli public and to the American and Jewish right. His speech represented a doubling down of the porcupine strategy that guides his government's policy. He told the world body that its Security Council was being presided over by terrorists and posed as the champion of the "Clash of Civilizations" narrative. In reminding his audience of the sacrifices entailed by Israel's withdrawal from Gaza six years ago, he somehow overlooked the fact that this was a withdrawal that he himself vociferously opposed. In referring several times to Israel's peace with Egypt, Netanyahu may have left some reminiscing that in that agreement Israel withdrew to the last centimeter of the 67 lines, removed every settler and IDF position, and entrusted security to an international force -- the MFO.

In response to their respective speeches, Abbas received overwhelming applause from the delegates in the GA hall while Netanyahu's support came only from his own delegation and from the peanut gallery -- perhaps that was filled with a U.S. congressional delegation on a daytrip to the U.N.!

As attention shifts away from Turtle Bay, one should look to at least three arenas for what happens next.

First, What next at the U.N.? Do the Palestinians also go to the General Assembly in the coming days and weeks -- especially when their move is visibly stuck in committee at the Security Council? Pressure is likely to grow on Abbas to make that move and the lead option might become to re-cast the Sarkozy speech into a General Assembly initiative with European and Arab support. Doing so would give the Palestinians a concrete achievement, constituting an upgrade to non-member state while receiving an overwhelming General Assembly majority as things slowly progressed at the Security Council.

Second, what happens on the ground? Mass nonviolent popular protests? Do settlers provoke, is there violence, what will be the IDF response. Will Palestinians really join the "Arab Spring"?

Third, how does the government of Israel respond? Do they take punitive measures against the PA as some ministers -- led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- have threatened, including withholding Palestinian tax revenues? This would be hugely counter-productive of course and ultimately hurt Israel more than the Palestinians. But that Israel might nonetheless do this speaks to the excesses of Netanyahu-led government and its crass political and tactical calculations.

Finally, what of that Quartet statement hurriedly put together and released just hours after the two leaders' speeches had surely rendered it dead on arrival.

After over two months of trying and in a week in which Israel-Palestine has dominated the global agenda, the Quartet belatedly showed signs of life in releasing a statement. But that statement was perhaps more noteworthy for what was omitted than for what was codified. Since President Obama's two speeches in May, the Quartet, notably in a principals meeting in July - and then for much of this week in New York - has been attempting to reach language on proposed parameters for a two-state solution that would then be presented to the parties and to the world. That consensus could not be reached.

The Europeans, alongside the Russians and the envoy of the U.N. Secretary General, adhered more closely to parameters that have previously been discussed as well as to certain principles of international law (in particular, not koshering the settlements post-facto). At the same time, the US administration sought to further move the goal posts for a two-state deal in the direction of the Netanyahu government's comfort zone -- a place faraway from any reasonable two-state outcome. The Palestinians can be relieved that the drafts prepared between Jerusalem and Washington did not prevail.

Instead, the Quartet presented what was largely a reiteration of existing positions and a limited procedural agenda and timetable to promote negotiations and an agreement. The Quartet's apparent continued faith in the idea that negotiations between the parties can be fruitful and that trust can be built seems ever-more detached from reality. More extensive heavy-lifting will be needed by the international community if a realistic basis is to be created for any future direct-negotiations. Notably they would have to address the asymmetry that exists between the parties and the Israeli sense of impunity for maintaining and entrenching a status quo of occupation.

There were, nonetheless, a few features of this Quartet statement worthy of comment:

  • The Quartet called on the parties to present comprehensive proposals for territory and security in three months. This represents a more forward-leaning and conscious effort to pursue the logic initially outlined by President Obama on May 19 for making progress (borders and security first). It is perhaps the only really new element; however it appears that the Quartet are willing to sacrifice that somewhat novel approach to a breakthrough on peace on the altar of loyalty to direct negotiations. If the parties cannot overcome that trust gap (and the language of the Quartet statements suggests that some Quartet members at least doubt it) then why not have the parties submit their proposals on territory and security to the Quartet -- that might be a more serious approach.
  • Any explicit reference to settlements is conspicuous in its absence. One has to carry a peace-process dictionary to understand that the reference in point five to "provocative actions and Roadmap obligations" is in large measure a way of saying settlements. It is a reflection of how ineffectual the Quartet is likely to continue to be, that we have reached a stage where they cannot explicitly reference a settlement freeze. International legality be damned. For the Palestinians, the absence of settlement freeze language and the absence of clear terms of reference, as they had requested, will be a hard swallow (albeit the terms of reference they would have got would have constituted an even harder swallow).
  • In an atmosphere in which Congress is threatening aid to the Palestinians in retaliation for their UN approach, and in which members of the Israeli cabinet are doing likewise with regard to the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, it is noteworthy that the statement spends two paragraphs acknowledging the institution-building achievements of the PA and calling for a PA donors conference. On this, there is consensus: dramatically shaking up the status quo by taking the kinds of steps that would precipitate the PA's collapse would then put the international community in an uncomfortable situation. It is also a reflection of the understanding that while the PA provides an element of self-government as well as employment and services to the Palestinians, it is ultimately a mechanism that is hugely convenient for Israel, in shouldering the direct burden of managing the occupation. It is easier for the US to defend something that is so clearly in Israel's interest.
  • The Quartet is potentially given a greater role in overseeing this effort, which may be an acknowledgement of America's inability to lead given its domestic political realities, or maybe that just helped grease the wheels for the rest of the Quartet to go on this journey.
  • The idea of holding a future peace conference in Moscow conference -- long buried --makes a reappearance. This apparently helped seal Russian approval for issuing a Quartet statement as the Russians had been something of a holdout during the ongoing talks.
  • Finally, there was no consensus position in relation to today's Palestinian application for U.N. membership -- and that is an issue that one imagines that the Quartet and much of the Security Council, not least the U.S., would be happy to avoid voting on any time soon.

AFP/Getty images

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