How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed last week, the Palestine Liberation Organization will present an application for UN membership on Friday to be considered by the Security Council. This move appears to close the door on the possibility that Palestinian officials would withdraw their application in favor of a General Assembly resolution if such a vote were to enjoy a critical mass of support from EU member states.
In the eyes of the Palestinian leadership, Europe is the big prize. Abbas hopes to leverage the UN bid to recruit other global heavyweights as a counterbalance to the United States. But not at any cost: when European offers last week proved underwhelming and loaded with conditions that Ramallah could not accept, Abbas confirmed his current course, with all the negative consequences that entails. But all hope might not yet be lost.
It has become catechism among the Palestinian leadership that there will be no return to bilateral negotiations with Israel in the absence of acceptable terms of reference and a settlement freeze. Even before negotiations broke down in September 2010 after two failed rounds of talks (one direct between Israelis and Palestinians, the other indirect, via U.S. mediators), Palestinian leaders had trumpeted the United Nations as a fallback option.
They claimed that full UN membership was indeed a practical option: either the United States could be pressured not to veto the Palestinian application in the Security Council or the U.S. veto could be circumvented in the General Assembly. But these declarations, premised on inadequate knowledge of the UN system, turned out to be plain wrong. Without any other options and with his already weakened credibility on the line, Abbas plowed ahead with the original idea, even as his surrogates explored alternative paths, such as requesting non-member observer state status.
"You have to understand what the Palestinian mentality is right now," an Egyptian official told me several months ago. "The leadership feels that it's out of options, and the UN is the proverbial last bullet in the gun. They are going to use it." At this point, having backed themselves into a corner, Abbas and his allies have little choice. Were they to step back now, with no suitable compensation, they would only confirm their fecklessness in the eyes of their people.
The view of the UN gambit within even the innermost circle of the Palestinian leadership is not monolithic, however. Loosely speaking, there are two camps. The first, led by Abbas, has looked to the UN to preserve the reigning paradigm of Palestinian diplomacy: good relations with Washington and bilateral negotiations with Israel. The UN offered a means of doing something by demonstrating activism to a jaded Palestinian public, a symbolic protest proving that Ramallah would no longer engage, as a Palestinian negotiator put it to me, in "business as usual." At the same time, the UN could pave a way back to the negotiating table. With Israel unwilling to agree to terms Abbas deemed acceptable and the United States unable to extract them from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government, Abbas hoped that the UN would deliver what others could not.
The second camp, associated with a wider but less influential segment of the Palestinian leadership, is more willing to jettison the current paradigm. It recognizes the ultimate necessity of negotiations but prefers, in the meantime, to concentrate on acquiring the institutional and legal tools needed to shift the balance of power. It sees the UN initiative as a means to gain membership in international organizations and justice mechanisms, particularly the International Criminal Court. As this camp sees it, the move would normalize the idea of Palestinian statehood and make full UN membership seem inevitable; it would also afford the Palestinians certain legal tools, although the leadership claims that it would use them more as a deterrent against future Israeli aggression than as a platform for adjudicating the occupation.
But such reassurances are not convincing to officials in Israel, the United States, and some European states, such as the United Kingdom, who fear a wave of ICC cases with negative consequences for both Israel and the court itself. Certain European states have reportedly conditioned their support for a General Assembly resolution upgrading Palestine's status at the UN on a commitment not to bring any cases to the ICC, a demand that has been rejected thus far. (Similarly, Abbas has rejected Europe's related demands for the Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions and to forego any move to the Security Council, either before or after a General Assembly vote.)
Europe's unwillingness to support any option acceptable to the Palestinians is serving only to unite these two Palestinian camps as the UN debate looms. Internal divisions matter little if there is no real choice to be made. At this writing, the Palestinian leadership is determined not to give up the leverage it believes it holds at the Security Council until it has a solid alternative in hand -- but, as often tends to happen with brinksmanship, tactics can become strategy.
In support of this agenda, the PLO hopes to rally support in the Palestinian territories behind the UN bid, whatever form it ultimately takes. Substantial turnout at the protests is indeed likely -- although not, it should be said, out of any genuine mass support but because on Wednesday, PA offices and schools will be shut and attendance at demonstrations will be required of employees and students. Although Israel fears violence, most Palestinians are skeptical that mass unrest will break out; they believe that demonstrations will get out of hand only if the Israeli army or settlers provoke them.
Most ordinary Palestinians have been indifferent to the UN initiative, although as the deadline looms, interest is growing and Abbas is scoring some points for standing up to Washington. That said, the need to conscript protesters reflects the lack of popular enthusiasm. Many Palestinians do not see how a vote half a world away will make any difference in their lives. With the population in the West Bank (like in Gaza) alienated from those ostensibly leading their national cause, people are quick to assume the worst about an agenda that they had no role in setting and about which they harbor doubts. In fact, the UN move could end up having the exact opposite effect on the PLO's popular legitimacy than its crafters had hoped: influential voices -- such as the Palestinian intellectual Ghada Karmi -- have raised questions about the effects of a statehood vote on the PLO's status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
All this is to say is that if genuine unrest should indeed arise in the West Bank, it will not be led by the current Palestinian leadership but in fact could be directed against it; the protests will come not on account of the UN agenda but in defiance of it. Few think this is imminent, but should Israel and the United States punish the Palestinian Authority for the UN move -- most notably by cutting the transfer of tax revenues, which Israel collects on behalf of the PA, per the Oslo Accords -- the government's already grievous financial situation will grow even more fraught. The payment of salaries is among the PA's most important political assets, without which its staying power would be seriously compromised.
With the credibility of the Palestinian leadership in tatters and the situation on the ground precarious, one decisive actor needs to step forward to broker a reasonable deal. The United States took itself out of the running by seeking to quash the UN bid and cajoling and pressuring states to vote against it. For many reasons, Washington seems determined to fight to the bitter end: because of the sincere belief that the UN is the wrong way forward for peacemaking and that the United States is the best steward of the diplomatic process, because of the powerful domestic constraints imposed by Congress, and because a veto would cost the United States political capital in the Middle East.
But were Abbas to retreat from New York without a tangible gain, he would suffer a devastating and perhaps fatal blow -- a curious and self-defeating course for Washington to pursue, given that Abbas is a central pillar on which the United States has premised its diplomatic agenda in the region. As a Palestinian official told me last week, "If we pull out now, our tenure will be measured in days or weeks."
This vacuum of U.S. leadership creates an opening for the European Union, of which it has so far failed to take advantage. The EU has long complained that its financial assistance was eagerly welcomed in Ramallah while its political contributions were shunned, but today only Brussels can fulfill the Palestinians' minimum requirements while reassuring Israel about its core concerns. Abbas's announcement of his intent to present an application for full membership might signal the fading of this possibility. But an offer not premised on what Palestinians consider demeaning and unfair conditions may yet find a receptive audience.
In particular, the EU should encourage the Palestinians to drop their application for full membership and offer compensation in the form of a General Assembly resolution composed of two elements. First, the resolution should specify that any future Israeli-Palestinian border would be based on 1967 lines with equal swaps and that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states; at the same time, it should reassure Israel that an eventual final settlement would end all outstanding claims relating to the conflict and provide for "two states for two peoples." (Many Palestinians and Israelis reject this phrase: the former because they interpret it as an endorsement of a Jewish state, and the latter because the endorsement is unclear. For that very reason, it could point in the direction of a workable outcome.)
Second, in an effort to break new ground and to address the statehood question, this General Assembly resolution should give the Palestinians a status upgrade at the UN to that of a non-member observer state. This would not change the situation on the ground in the West Bank or Gaza nor would it provide UN membership as Abbas has demanded, but it would constitute an acceptable second best. The EU would then have to play the important role of encouraging all sides to exercise caution: with the Palestinian side equipped with new tools, but with the Israel and the United States still in possession of their own, even more formidable weapons, it is easy to imagine a bitter escalation that would cost all parties.
Unfortunately, although such an outcome is compelling in theory and is the option most likely to move the conflict out of its current stalemate, forces behind the scenes in both Brussels and Ramallah may actually favor the opposite. The EU and Abbas have reason to prefer that the Security Council simply shoot down a Palestinian application for membership. A Security Council veto -- or even a procedural delay that would forestall consideration of Palestine's application -- would allow Abbas to present himself as a national hero who confronted the world, while avoiding the messy and contentious maneuvering that non-member state status would entail. The EU, for its part, would avoid an embarrassing display of discord and a clash with the United States. In other words, both Ramallah and Brussels could end up with a failure that, in the short run at least, would prove less costly than would success. This would make for "business as usual," after all.