Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared himself "all in" last week, promising to push for a vote on Palestinian statehood at the UN Security Council. His decision puts the already-listing HMS Oslo Accords in danger of running aground on a long-ignored reality: The current paradigm isn't working.
After 18 years of negotiations that have so far failed to deliver the envisioned outcome of two states for two peoples, it's hard to imagine Abbas backing off from a promised vote on Palestinian statehood along borders that prevailed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In Ramallah last week he declared UN recognition as necessary to move forward, and promised to present the statehood demand after delivering a speech at the UN on Sept. 23.
"We need to have full membership within [pre-1967] borders in order to go to negotiations on a basis adopted by the world so that we may discuss the permanent issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees – and our prisoners in Israeli prisons," Mr. Abbas said.
Abbas's own legitimacy has been waning. He has neither an electoral mandate nor much progress to show Palestinian constituents on the issues they care about most: curtailing Israeli settlement expansion and moving toward meaningful statehood.
In the West Bank, 60 percent of the land is still fully controlled by Israeli security forces, and economic development is not permitted in those areas, according to a recent World Bank report I wrote about last week. In the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is the de facto authority, an economic blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt remains in force. If Abbas backs off now without receiving something in return, as the US is urging him to do, it would be a crippling blow to his own standing among Palestinians.
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What will happen if Abbas moves forward on Friday? The US is hinting at a Security Council veto, a moment that is likely to shred its last remaining credibility among Palestinians as an impartial, honest broker when it comes to Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. After all, the US position has been for years that a Palestinian state should be based on the pre-1967 borders. While Washington says that such a state must be achieved through negotiations, not at the UN, standing in the way of the UN bid will, rightly or wrongly, send a message to the Palestinians – and the restive populations of neighboring Egypt and Jordan – that the US is committed to doing the bidding of Israel's current government, not to delivering a Palestinian state.
Blogger Issandr El Amrani flags a revealing conversation between State Department spokesman Mark Toner and the AP's Matt Lee last week, in which Mr. Lee asks why UN recognition can't be seen as a prod to new and meaningful negotiations, rather than as an obstacle. As Lee pushes his point, Mr. Toner seems flummoxed – continually repeating the US position that it prefers direct talks and that recognition is "counterproductive." Lee, apparently frustrated, finally says: "To the Palestinians, it gives them some kind of hope, some kind of confidence, that when they do sit down – let me finish – when they do sit down at the negotiating table, that they have more leverage than some kind of nonentity that they’re treated as now."
Palestinian respect for the US has already been waning fast. Veteran negotiator Dennis Ross went to the West Bank last week in a bid to convince Abbas to back off from the UN vote, and his proposal reportedly infuriated Abbas. Palestinian officials said Mr. Ross had presented a plan that, among other things, referred to continuing Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank as "demographic changes" rather than illegal, thus implying US support for them. The Israeli enclaves, which house more than 300,000 Jews in the West Bank, are considered illegal under international law, which forbids the transfer of citizens into occupied territory.
In the wake of a US veto at the UN, it's hard to see American peace process professionals like Ross retaining any clout with Palestinian leaders at all. In Egypt and other regional states, the belief that when the chips are down that the US always backs Israel will be strengthened – and limit US influence in other arenas. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the US and as close as any senior Saudi official to the US, provided a stark warning of regional consequences in an op-ed in the New York Times last week.
"With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the 'special relationship' between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims," he wrote. "Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy. Like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed, Saudi Arabia would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open an embassy there despite American pressure to do so."
Israel's position is plummeting elsewhere around the region. Turkey has kicked out Israel's ambassador over anger at Israel's decision not to apologize for the killings of Turkish activists aboard the ill-fated Gaza flotilla, and Israel's ambassador had to flee Egypt after the country's military rulers failed to secure the embassy here from angry protesters.
Political change in Egypt means that the old formula of Egyptian support for Israel in exchange for US cash is almost certainly going to be reworked. From the left to the Islamists to the neoliberal right here in Cairo, anger at Israel is one of the few consensus positions. Jordan, the only other Arab state that has made peace with Israel, is likely going to come under popular pressure to distance itself from the Jewish state as well – further isolating Israel (and the US).
"Any thoughts of the Arab awakening 'proving' that Palestine was in fact a marginal concern in the region were unequivocally banished in recent weeks," former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy wrote last week. "To imagine that a popular Arab push for democracy, freedom, and dignity would ignore Israel's denial of those same aspirations for Palestinians was a flight of fancy."
The one thing Israel could do to head off this vote – a West Bank settlement freeze, with teeth – is unlikely to come to pass, given the fervor and political power of the settlers.
Right-wing settlers, who have a strong voice in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, have been promising provocative marches against UN recognition this week and staking their claim to the West Bank. Settlers won't be "waiting at home so the Arabs might get close to their fences," Itamar Ben-Gvir told Ynet. "We're going to go out and make it clear to the Arabs who the home owners are. We're going to take the initiative and march towards Palestinian towns."
Whatever happens at the UN, events at the end of this week are going to prove a new marker over the decades long fight over creating a Palestinian state. Abbas' big bet isn't going to change the situation – or help his people – overnight. But it could chart a new course for a "process" that has, by and large, been a failure.