international analysis and commentary

Abbas’s gamble and the role of the international community


In requesting UN membership for the State of Palestine under the pre-1967 lines, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas argued that the internationally accepted two-state solution has been undermined by Israel’s behavior: the unilateral settlement policy and “a selective application of the agreements aimed at perpetuating the occupation”. About one hour later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued at the General Assembly that the core of the conflict “remains the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state in any border.” Netanyahu stated that Israel must “maintain a long-term Israeli military presence in critical strategic areas in the West Bank” and that only direct negotiations, not UN resolutions, can lead to peace.

The pivotal point in this showdown was that the US administration supported Netanyahu’s stance on direct talks between the parties, as clarified by US President Barack Obama in his last speech at the United Nations. Also along these lines, last February, his administration had vetoed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “illegal”. This veto, from a symbolic point of view, was a turning point for the administration’s foreign policy in the Near East. The message it sent was that occupation and settlements – two issues that once solved would not automatically bring peace, but which are necessary steps in that direction – are matters of negotiations; in other words, Palestinians have to bargain a stop of the on-going settlement construction in the occupied territories as part of the peace process.

In his speech at the UN, Netanyahu pointed out that he took the “unprecedented step of freezing new buildings in the settlements for 10 months.” However, this freeze didn’t include East Jerusalem and the freezing of public constructions, such as schools and synagogues. It applied only to new constructions, meaning that the ones already underway continued, with the result that in the weeks preceding the moratorium a boom of new buildings was registered. Moreover, in the weeks following September 26, 2010, the day in which the moratorium ended, 1,650 new houses were built, a little less than the total amount built in all of 2009.

In light of these developments, many Palestinians started to view the peace process as a tool to create facts on the ground. This could be why 83% of all Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza support President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid to the UN according to the last poll released on September 20th by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey. They came to believe that only the international community (i.e. a multilateral-agreed decision) can push Israel to renounce the benefits which the current status quo includes, such as the exploitation of natural resources in the occupied territories, especially water, but also tons of gravel, stone and dolomite (moreover a considerable portion of Israeli waste is buried in the West Bank).

Without the peace process – and thus EU and US funds – the Palestinian National Authority could hardly survive. Nonetheless, in the face of the Arab Spring, Abbas had to make a move in order to react to the discontent of his own people and he reminded the international community in his speech at the UN that the “settlement policy threatens to also undermine the structure of the Palestinian National Authority and even end its existence.” The main demonstration of his weakness is represented by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Without the fast implementation of a reconciliation agreement between the Palestinian factions and the creation of a Palestinian National Council, Abbas’s bid to seek full UN statehood is doomed to fail also from a symbolic perspective.

In Israel, the statehood bid was seen as a historic event with very negative implications: as was pointed out on Haaretz, while Abbas received massive support during his speech, Netanyahu was welcomed coldly: “If anyone still had any doubts – this [is] what a political tsunami looks like, and this is what international isolation feels like.” Also opposition leader Tzipi Livni criticized on Ynetnews that the Netanyahu government led Israel into diplomatic isolation. She claimed that a return to negotiations “would prevent foreign plans that are not in our favor from being forced upon us” and that it “isn’t enough to deliver a speech about his [Netanyahu’s] philosophy – he must take action that would prompt everyone to believe him.”

In fact, though it may seem paradoxical, the peace process has also been essential for Israel to pursue its settlement policy: the very fact that it is available for negotiations allows Tel Aviv a freedom of action it would be denied if it openly renounced the Quartet framework. Thus, the fundamental interests of the local actors create a natural link between the facts on the ground and the choices of the international community, as was evidenced at the UN.

Shortly before the statehood bid, former US President Bill Clinton blamed Netanyahu for his inability to reach a peace deal by arguing that the Israeli Prime Minister “lost interest in the peace process as soon as two basic Israeli demands seemed to come into reach: a viable Palestinian leadership and the possibility of normalizing ties with the Arab world.” In a reaction to this statement, Netanyahu argued that it was the Palestinian leaders who moved away from Israeli proposals and went to the UN.

In the meantime, the Middle East Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) is trying to revive peace talks within one month, to find a solution for borders within half a year and a peace treaty by the end of 2012. There are risks for Abbas in this position: the revival of peace talks could mean that a decision on the statehood bid will be postponed for the time being or that Palestinians will be upgraded to “observer state” (instead of their current “observer status”) as an intermediate step before receiving full membership status, as proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Such a move, however, would most likely be perceived as a rejection by the Palestinians and as a failure of Abbas.

The showdown at the UN showed once more that real dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be sustained without the direct intervention of the international community. There are only two bad alternatives to multilateralism. The first is the sadly well-known “aggressive unilateralism” that both sides showed in so many occasions. The second is what the Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in 1947 termed “monologue disguised as dialogue”, i.e. the dialogue “in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources.”