Palestine: Statehood or not?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to seek a vote on state membership at the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC) comes on the heels of increasing disillusion with the peace process amongst Palestinians, as well as a changing regional dynamic that does not favor Israel.

Political Boost

Mr. Abbas is planning to submit the membership letter to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Friday, knowing that the odds are stacked highly against a successful approval of such a bid. The US has voiced its intention to use the veto if a vote makes its way to the UNSC, and some European countries, including France, the United Kingdom, and Germany are still reluctant to embrace the effort. Abbas’ decision, however, is largely based on domestic and regional calculations. According to the latest poll conducted by Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an overwhelming majority (83%) of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza support going to the UNSC, while 77% expect the US to veto any statehood resolution. The same poll indicates that 74% of Palestinians are disillusioned with the peace process and see no promise in returning to negotiations “without acceptable terms of reference, or Israel freezing settlement construction”. Negotiations broke down between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government last September over settlement expansion in the occupied territories.

The poll brings good news to Mr. Abbas, who can use a political spring after repeated setbacks in peace process in last year, as well as public embarrassment after the release of the “Palestinian negotiations papers” by the Al-Jazeera channel early in the year, which revealed concessions the Palestine Authority was making to Israel on the final status issues. The Arab Spring is also on Abbas’ mind.  In his speech announcing the decision last Friday, Abbas whose four-year term expired in 2009 and was extended by one year, assured the Palestinians that “we have everything here, democracy and freedom…so we do not think that anyone will go to the square and chant the people want (to topple the regime)”, as has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Mr. Abbas is fully aware that standing idle will only increase discontent amongst Palestinians and embolden his political rival, Hamas. Interestingly, Hamas is opposed to the UN bid, giving Abbas all the more reason to drive this effort.

Strained Relations with Obama

The PA decision came despite a US warning of “unintentional consequences,” delivered in a message by White House adviser Dennis Ross to Ramallah on Thursday. These consequences could include a review of the US aid to the PA (an estimate of $500M a year). The US Congress has signaled its intent to reassess this economic assistance, and has also threatened to close the PLO mission office in Washington, recently upgraded by the Obama administration to a “general delegation” status. Moreover, the bid may also significantly strain the possibility of direct dialogue between the PA and the Obama administration. The two leaders have not spoken since February, and there is a sense of disappointment amongst US officials towards Mr. Abbas for undermining what is seen as Mr. Obama’s genuine effort to resume peace talks, as well as pressure the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction last year.

Changing regional dynamic

The regional picture, however, shows a declining US influence and strong support from key regional actors for the Palestinian bid. Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Abbas, told reporters over the weekend that the PA is weighing other financial alternatives if the US decides to cut its aid. Shaath referenced Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar as potential donors. Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently spouted strong pro-Palestinian rhetoric, is another potential channel.

However, even though the tension in their relationship has recently increased, both Mr. Abbas and Mr. Obama realize that they cannot afford to ignore one another. The Obama administration remains a vital player in the peace process, and the only player who has Israel’s ear and the ability to extract concessions from Mr. Netanyahu. By the same token, Mr. Abbas remains Washington’s best hope for any deal, given his opposition to violence and his ability, with the help of his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to improve economic and social conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Urgency for resuming the peace process

Nonetheless, a veto by the US at the UNSC will hugely diminish the progress that the US has made in the Middle East through its vocal support of protestors across the Middle East and North Africa since the onset of the Arab Spring. If the US were to prevent a conclusive decision to the bid in the coming weeks (assuming that the vote reaches the Security Council), a peace effort is urgently needed to resume negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A stalemate can spur violence in the territories and make a difficult situation even more unpredictable. The recent attack by Egyptian protestors at the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the anti-Israeli protests in Istanbul and Amman reflect an increasingly hostile attitude towards Israel that could spark a third intifada.

Although Mr. Obama’s main concern lies with the economic challenges and the developments in Libya and Egypt, the current situation should take the peace process off the backburner.  It will not be the first time that US Presidents have engaged in the peace process towards the end of their terms and ahead of presidential elections. Former US President George H. Bush launched the Madrid conference in October 1991; subsequently, Bill Clinton hosted Syrian-Israeli peace talks in 1994 and 1995.

The Obama administration can still salvage the peace process and bring back the parties to the negotiating table on the terms of reference that the US president outlined on his May 19 speech, mainly the 1967 borders with agreed swaps. After all, it was Mr. Obama who in May stated that “at a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever”.

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