US no longer the power broker it was on path to Palestinian statehood

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have outlived the era of the US acting as the sole power able to make things happen. Instead, Palestinian leaders are pushing for international recognition of statehood.

Mohamad Torokman/REUTERS
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the opening ceremony of the "Jerusalem in Memory" exhibition in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 4, 2015.

The Palestinian drive to establish international recognition of a state of Palestine outside the traditional path of US-brokered negotiations with Israel is gaining ground.

The most recent evidence: last week’s United Nations Security Council vote that fell just one vote short of the super majority needed to approve a resolution fixing a deadline of one year for achieving Palestinian statehood.

But even as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders announce plans to keep the statehood-through-international-recognition train chugging forward – including with a likely push for another Security Council vote within weeks – the effort also faces considerable uncertainty.

The question posed widely now in the United States, Europe, and across the Middle East is whether a decade from now the Palestinian drive, dismissed by critics as counterproductive unilateral action but by supporters as the Palestinians’ only alternative, will have led to a state of Palestine – or to another frustrating dead end.

For the US, another question will be whether Palestinian success outside the decades-old framework of an American-led peace process will have underscored the retreat of US leadership in the region – or whether failure of a “unilateral” path will have reconfirmed an indispensable US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinians would seem to have good reason to be putting more faith in the statehood-through-international-recognition path than in the US-brokered peace process.

In the three years since a failed 2011 Security Council vote on statehood was widely dismissed as a desperate Palestinian gambit aimed largely at embarrassing the US, the Palestinians have won “observer state” status for Palestine in the UN General Assembly. Palestine has begun joining international agencies like UNESCO.

Perhaps more significantly, some 135 countries, a clear majority of all those on the planet, now recognize the state of Palestine. Many international legal experts say Palestine is well along the path of establishing the recognized criteria of statehood, including an established government, a defined population, and recognition by other states.

At the same time, peace initiatives under the Obama administration, including the most recent stab at negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry, collapsed without progress. And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seized the higher ground by insisting Israel stands ready to resume talks “without preconditions,” from the Palestinian perspective the focus on US-brokered talks has simply allowed Israel the time and cover to continue eating away at Palestinian lands through settlement expansion.

The drive for statehood through recognition finds its strongest support in Arab countries and in Europe. But the effort also has supporters in the US, who say that while negotiations between the two parties will ultimately be necessary, there’s no reason a campaign of recognition through the UN can’t help to kick start the longtime international goal of establishing a Palestinian state in a way that fortifies Israel’s security.

“The effort to gain recognition through the United Nations and through individual governments can have a positive effect, and ultimately I think that effort and negotiations between the parties and brokered by the US can interconnect,” says Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department policy planning senior adviser now at Duke University in Durham, NC.

Professor Jentleson, who has worked with Democratic administrations on Mideast affairs, says a historical review of the decades-old peace process reveals that it’s often been jolts to the conventional approach that have got things moving.

“Most of the major progress towards Middle East peace has come either from shocks to the system or from unconventional moves,” says Jentleson, pointing to Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 war, Anwar Sadat’s trip to Israel that culminated in the Camp David Accords, or how the Gulf War of 1990-1991 led to the Madrid peace conference.

“We’ve seen progress before other than through the standard around-the-table negotiating,” he says, “so I don’t object to the effort to push statehood through the Security Council.”

Even some Israelis see some positive aspects in the Palestinian drive for UN recognition. “Of course there is a danger that taking this way forward almost nullifies the need for negotiations as far as the Palestinians are concerned,” says Oded Eran, an Israeli diplomat who led Israel’s negotiating team in the 1999-2000 talks with Palestinians. “But I’m not so sure I see every aspect of it as a threat.” 

Others dismiss the Palestinians’ UN recognition drive as a dangerous path doomed to failure.

John Bolton, who served as US ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush and is now at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, qualifies the Palestinian bid as a “fantasy” based on the false idea that a state can be created through “ ‘facts on the ground’ in the UN’s hallways rather than on real ground in the Middle East.”

Where even many supporters of the Palestinian drive draw the line is over Mr. Abbas’s application, shortly after last week’s Security Council defeat, for Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court. Abbas has said the Palestinians would use ICC membership to press war crime charges against Israel.

That application was immediately condemned by the Obama administration, and was followed by mounting calls from Congress to cut off US assistance to the Palestinians.

On Tuesday Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky introduced the “Defend Israel by Defunding Palestinian Foreign Aid Act,” which calls for immediate suspension of all US aid until the Palestinian Authority withdraws its ICC application.

Earlier this week, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois condemned the Palestinian Authority for “irresponsible and destabilizing efforts to use the ICC to target Israel and undermine the peace process,” and he called on cutting all US funding to the PA “until they start acting like the partner for peace that is needed in the Middle East.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced Wednesday that “Palestine” will officially join the ICC on April 1 based on its application.

Duke’s Jentleson says the ICC application is the wrong move because it would set back international support for the statehood bid, and because it sends the wrong message to that part of the Israeli population that supports the so-called two-state solution to the conflict.

“I can see how the Security Council route helps” the statehood drive, he says. “The ICC route does not help.”

Ambassador Eran, now at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, also sees major differences between the Security Council and ICC initiatives. “One has to do with political ambitions, and one can argue they are justified,” he says. “The other one is part of a campaign to denigrate Israel and cause Israel problems in world public opinion.”   

The AEI’s Ambassador Bolton says one reason the US should adopt a firm and unequivocal stance against the ICC bid is to send a clear signal that the US will not accept – and indeed would veto – any renewed attempt by the Palestinians to achieve recognition through the Security Council. Bolton notes that last week’s resolution garnered eight yes votes, and that the new composition since Jan. 1 of the 15-member council – more favorable to the Palestinian cause – means the Palestinians could expect on a second try to reach the nine yes votes required for passage.

The US has vetoed resolutions concerning Israel before, but the Obama administration would like to avoid being cornered into striking down an initiative aimed at boosting the prospects for a Palestinian state – a goal the US supports.

Some critics say a US veto would underscore growing US irrelevance in the quest for a state of Palestine. But Eran says that at the end of the day “even the Palestinians know there is no alternative to the US role as moderator.”

“They may look elsewhere for support,” he adds, but to reach an accord with Israel “they know they have no alternative.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have outlived the era of the US acting as the sole power able to make things happen, Jentleson says, but that doesn’t mean peace can be reached without the US.

“The 21st century world is not the Camp David world of the 1970s where it all came down to US brokering,” he says. “Today there are many actors that matter, so we have to understand that while the US role may still be the most important, it’s different.”

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