international analysis and commentary

The grave dangers of a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence

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The diplomatic offensive that the Palestinian Authority launched last year to persuade the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state will come to fruition this September. Unless there is a last-minute turnaround, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials are determined to forge ahead, despite an already-announced US veto at the Security Council.

European governments are scrambling to find a unified EU position while bickering about the desirability of such a move.

What would be the consequences of a Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI)?

To pour water on the fire and persuade hesitant, mostly European governments to support their bid, Palestinian spokespersons have insisted that their effort is innocuous. At a recent closed door meeting on the prospects of UDI, held last January in a European capital, one high ranking official called it a “post-dated check” and admitted that the PA had no working plans to enforce its declaration on the ground. By their own admission, Palestinians, despite their efforts to obtain recognition, do not aspire to actually establish a state through the vote. Pressed about questions such as border controls, issuance of passports or national currency, control of water resources and airspace, supply of electricity from Israel, manning the checkpoints inside the West Bank, on the Green Line and along the Jordanian border, the PA team had no answer to offer. Their goal, this official insisted, was to cash in on a recognition that Palestine has slowly been gaining over the last twenty years and use the newly acquired status to put Israel on the defensive.

Since then, Palestinian officials have voiced this view publicly. PA Foreign Minister, Nabil Shaath announced in an interview with Arabic News Broadcast on July 13, that “This act… will enable us to exert pressure on Israel. At the end of the day, we want to exert pressure on Israel, in order to force it to recognize us and to leave our country. This is our long-term goal.” More than an effort to establish a state, the September diplomatic offensive at the UN looks like a maneuver to extract more concessions from Israel through international pressure, without the need for the PA to offer anything in return.

Like other PA officials, Shaath is not resigned to the fact that Israelis and Palestinians can only ever hope to coexist in peace if a two-state-for-two-people formula is implemented through negotiations. Many before him have put their trust in confrontational approaches, in the hope that once cornered, Israel would concede more. In this, they keep with Palestinian precedent – chiefly, with Yasser Arafat’s theory of al-huroub ila al-amam (escape by running forward). Arafat applied this principle in September 2000, when, rather than accept a peace plan that fell short of all his people’s aspirations, he launched the Second Intifada against Israel.

His logic was simple – create a chaotic situation that leans the balance of power  in the Palestinians’ favor. The problem with such approach is that it has always had disastrous consequences for the Palestinians – and there is no guarantee that this time will be different. The Second Intifada only temporarily improved the Palestinians’ negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. In the long term, it hurt their cause significantly and delayed their path to statehood.  

Unwilling to negotiate with Israel and unable to convince Israel to surrender to Palestinian demands, Arafat’s successors are about to repeat his mistake. By creating a crisis that could dramatically up the ante, they seek to avoid the difficult predicament of hard strategic choices, and enable the Palestinians – if all goes well – to reap significant diplomatic benefits from the wave of international recognition and support that could dramatically improve their diplomatic position in the event that negotiations were to resume.

But it is far from certain that this will be the case, beyond the short-term gain of recognition, diplomatic upgrade of Palestinian missions abroad to embassy status, and possibly the ability to confront and challenge Israel more effectively through legal means in the international arena. UDI could very well put the Palestinian Authority farther away, rather than closer, to real statehood.

The risk with this approach is that it will likely trigger an escalation on the ground, lead to Israeli unilateral responses, and unleash a crisis that will reverberate far beyond the region.

First, Israel may view a Palestinian unilateral move as a breach of the Oslo Accords and move to nullify them. Critics of this approach note that the end of the Oslo Accords would reinstate Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power in the West Bank and would require a return of Israel’s civil administration to deliver services. Instead, Israel will view its obligations as an occupying power superseded by the Palestinian declaration and proceed to unilaterally annex vast swaths of territory in the West Bank – very likely the Jordan Valley, the large settlements of Ariel, Ma’alei Adumim and the Etzion Bloc. Israel will also retain control of the access roads to smaller and more remote settlements and may decide to annex them too. Secondly, as noted violence may spiral out of control – its pattern could very well follow the events of late September 2000.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already urged “Arab Spring-like popular resistance” to support UDI; and jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti recently openly invoked “struggle and resistance on the ground”. If heeded, these calls could easily lead to a Palestinian version of the al-Nakba and al-Naksa Syrian- and Iranian-orchestrated provocations against Israel that occurred along the Israel-Lebanon border and the Syrian-Israel ceasefire line late last spring. Inside the West Bank, against the backdrop of a UDI and a complete breakdown in the peace process, these recurrences could quickly escalate into a full-fledged conflict. Such a clash, in the end, and not an empty UN General Assembly resolution, would define the future borders of Palestine and, indeed, its very existence.

Violence is always a possibility in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, but this time an escalation could conceivably spill over and inflame the region. The previous Intifada occurred against the backdrop of a very stable regional system, where moderate Arab regimes were firmly in control of their polities. While images of violence inflamed their public opinions, Arab regimes could afford to offer little, beyond the customary rhetoric of condemnation, to Arab indignation.

In 2011, the backdrop of the Arab Spring offers a different picture – one where rampant populism, dramatic economic setbacks, revolutionary transitions, and fragile regimes fighting for their own survival, all conjure up a very different Arab response to an Israeli-Palestinian flare-up.

The terrorist attacks against an Israeli bus and private cars along the Israeli-Egyptian border on August 18 and the decision, less than 24 hours later, by Hamas to unilaterally end a ceasefire with Israel and launch a barrage of rockets against Israeli population centers highlighted the potential for radical forces to exploit volatility to ensure that violence spirals out of control. Egypt’s confrontational response to Israel – and its denial that its forces have lost control of the Sinai Peninsula – may be a harbinger of things to come as tensions escalate between Israel and the PA.

Radical forces are keen to exploit any whiff of instability in the region to advance their agendas – Iran in particular may choose to turn Hezbollah against Israel both as a way to heat up the region and to consolidate its control in the Land of the Cedars. It should not be forgotten that the moderate Arab regimes in the region – which includes the GCC countries, Jordan, Morocco, and of course Tunisia and Egypt prior to their domestic upheavals – have always been primarily concerned about regime survival but also about Iran’s rising influence in the region.

Recent developments are strengthening some of these concerns. Civil war in Libya was exploited to smuggle better weapons to Gaza; Egypt’s revolution offered an opportunity to radicals to improve their presence and activities in the Sinai Peninsula; Syria’s uprising has become the new frontline in the battle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran; Yemen’s uprising has curtailed any Western anti-terror activity in the troubled country – and so on. For radicals, a looming conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would be a godsend. Those regimes that have so far weathered the storm of internal unrest would probably act with the same measured restraint adopted eleven years ago. But for those regimes in transition – Egypt first and foremost – things would be different and the temptation to be dragged into an escalation against Israel would be stronger than in the past.

In such a volatile situation, UDI could supply the spark and the fuel for a regional conflagration.

Finally, another important development which has been neglected in virtually all discussions of the UDI and its consequences is the fact that a recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN with the 1949 armistice lines as its borders and East Jerusalem as its capital would nullify the stipulations of UN Security Council Resolution 242 – the foundational document and the central legal basis for any peace process in the region. A collapse in negotiations and the attempt by the Palestinian Authority to get a border settlement decided by a UN vote rather than through direct negotiations would spell the death of 242 and put to rest any notion of a peace process for a long time to come.

Against the backdrop of mounting violence, attempts to exploit the UN vote diplomatically through Israel’s isolation in Europe and legally through challenges at the International Court of Justice and in other UN forums will not change the situation on the ground – as indeed Palestinians failed to do over the past 11 years.

In short, UDI is a recipe for conflict – one where at best the Palestinians can hope for a protracted stalemate where they might lose some ground and at worst the entire region could be dragged into conflict.