The Palestinian request last Friday for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state in the land occupied by Israel in 1967 created quite a diplomatic stir. This came after weeks of anticipation and guessing whether the Palestinian leadership would ask the Security Council for full U.N. membership, or take the safer route of asking the General Assembly for non-member observer state status.
Now that the request for full membership has been made, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have made their speeches and the diplomatic dust has largely settled, we can come to some conclusions now that these events have passed. These events suggest that there has been a dramatic change of strategy by the Palestinians but with uncertain results; a continuing pro-Israel tilt by the United States; a consistent but increasingly isolated and unconvincing strategy by the Israeli government; and, an embarrassing show of incompetence and daydreaming by the Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union) that is supposed to shepherd the two sides to conclude a permanent negotiated agreement.
In the end, all we can judge are the words of the various parties, because the past week has been a festival of rhetoric above all else. Nobody has made any substantive moves on the ground, with even the Palestinian request for U.N. recognition being words on paper that signal intent rather than any tangible accomplishment.
The intent that Abbas has signaled, however, is potentially a game-changer, if he sticks to his position and refuses to resume the diplomatic game according to the old rules that have failed to achieve any progress since the Madrid peace talks began nearly 20 years ago. If Abbas persists in refusing to resume negotiations while the Israelis continue their settlement building, this would turn out to be the dramatic change that could have far-reaching consequences – but only if several things were to happen in the coming months and years.
Withdrawing from the negotiations is not particularly impressive if there is no alternative strategy that could realistically bring the Palestinians their national rights through some other means than American-mediated direct talks with Israel. It remains unclear what that alternative strategy might be, beyond asking the U.N. General Assembly to reaffirm the Palestinians’ right to sovereign statehood. But a U.N. vote recognizing the state of Palestine is not a strategy; it is a procedural move that signals the fact that the Palestinians will not persist in the failed old diplomatic approach that brought them no real gains on the road to sovereignty.
This move, to be effective, must be followed up by a complete Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, a rebuilding of the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, reformulating the Palestinian national consensus on engaging or resisting Israel, or both, and defining mechanisms by which all Palestinians around the region and the world can share in decision-making and lend their ideas, support and weight to their leadership’s diplomatic moves. The chances of this happening with the current leaders are slim, but the popular will for them to happen is huge.
If Abbas’ firm stand on rejecting negotiations under the failed old American-Israeli-dominated formula is the most significant development of the last few weeks, and the American tilt to Israel and Netanyahu’s speech are mere continuations of the stalemated and violent status quo, the most pitiful development has to be the statement issued by the Quartet last weekend. It proposed that both sides re-engage in a serious diplomatic effort that leads to concrete proposals within a few months and a Palestinian state within a year.
That this is a comical and totally inept performance is no surprise. The Quartet has proved itself to be a malicious mechanism by which the U.S. seeks to maintain a pro-Israeli tilt in the overall diplomacy surrounding Arab-Israeli negotiations. By merely repeating the same failed formula of the past, the Quartet members show that they have totally missed the point of how the Palestinians are demanding that the diplomatic rules be re-written, as opposed to being revived.
This is not surprising, given the prominent role in the Quartet played by the American official Dennis Ross and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the group’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Men like these – and the governments they represent – have proven many times over that they lack the honesty and trust needed to succeed in diplomacy. It is no surprise that at the moment of truth, they have simply reaffirmed their inability to recognize the truth and come to terms with it.
The key dynamics to watch now are within the Palestinian camp, where reconciliation, unity and national consensus will be vital for any progress beyond the drama last week in New York, where old rules were discarded, but new ones have yet to be formulated. The historic change was that Palestinians stopped acting like helpless victims of history and global politics, and started acting like a self-interested party demanding their rights, and in that way displaying political agency.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Star Lebanon on Sept. 28 2011)