Palestinian Authority leaders say that they are launching a new diplomatic campaign to gain international backing for a Palestinian state, after which they will unilaterally declare statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem – without waiting for a peace treaty with Israel.
Israel pushed back Sunday, issuing a warning that such a declaration of statehood would destroy previous peace agreements and goodwill.
The already rocky road to peace talks – which the US and other international mediators have for months been trying to coax Israelis and Palestinians back onto – just got rougher.
The statehood push comes just 10 days after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the he would not seek office in the next Palestinian elections, and phrased his announcement as an effective threat of resignation not just from office but the peace process itself. Israeli intransigence and US ineffectiveness over Israeli settlements were largely to blame, he said.
Now, Mr. Abbas plans to actively solicit worldwide support for a declaration of Palestinian statehood, irrespective of any negotiations with Israel.
Statehood by UN vote
Abbas' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said in an interview this weekend with the newspaper al-Ayyam that the Palestinian leader was going to turn to the UN Security Council to obtain recognition of a Palestinian state through a vote. In launching this campaign for statehood, aides said Abbas would travel to Cairo Wednesday to discuss the idea with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, after which he would visit other regions – including Europe and Latin America – to shore up support.
The move could be a spark for stalled peacemaking efforts, or it could itself spur further conflict between Palestinians and Israelis – who view the Palestinian proposal to unilaterally declare statehood as an out-and-out threat. Either way, the latest Palestinian moves show the extent to which the Palestinian leadership is frayed by the last few frustrating weeks of failed diplomacy, and appears to have lost faith in a US-brokered peace process bringing genuine results.
"The Israelis impeded negotiations, and therefore we are left with only this option in order to safeguard our national project," says Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Council in Ramallah.
"We have been left with no other choices and nothing to lose," Mr. Shtayyeh says. "How can Abbas or any other Palestinian leader survive in this context without political developments? This is the only thing we can offer our people now. The time is right."
Netanyahu: Only one way forward
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Sunday night that negotiation was the only way forward, and that a unilateral move on the Palestinians' part would mean the end of the process begun with the 1993 Oslo Accords.
"There is no substitute for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and any unilateral path will only unravel the framework of agreements between us and will only bring unilateral steps from Israel's side," Netanyahu told a Middle East policy conference.
Earlier in the day, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned Netanyahu's cabinet at its weekly meeting that the risks of the Palestinians declaring their own state were real, because many countries across the international community could be expected to support the statehood proposal. Israel itself was created by a vote in the United Nations.
"Without an agreement, there is a possibility that support will increase for the Palestinians declaring a state unilaterally," Mr. Barak told the cabinet, according to a statement released afterwards.
Hani el-Masri, a political analyst and columnist in the West Bank city of Ramallah, says that Abbas sees his list of options as running short. Attempts to restart peace talks since President Obama took office in January have not borne fruit, which Abbas blames primarily on Israel's refusal to call a total freeze on settlement growth. Netanyahu says he's ready to come back to talks without preconditions, meaning a settlement slow-down is all that's on offer.
In recent weeks, Palestinians perceived a US tilt towards Netanyahu's position, though US officials say the Obama administration's policy on the issue has not changed. "Abbas is at a serious deadlock. The Americans have embarrassed him, and the Israelis are not proceeding in any viable peace process," says Mr. el-Masri. "The only option that's left, as Abbas sees it, is for Palestinians is to declare the state unilaterally with backing from the United Nations."
"Sharon marched back into the Palestinians territories, and Netanyahu could do the same now. But once the Palestinians get recognition internationally, Israel will not be able to take such a step," Masri says of Abbas' logic. "The Palestinians are stuck. We don't know when we'll next have elections. Hamas is procrastinating. Abbas has to achieve something just to keep functioning, and a declaration of statehood will give the PA a boost."