Tragedy, Then Farce: Israel, Palestine, the United States, and the UN Vote for Palestinian Statehood

Jul 29, 2011

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Carnegie Council.

When it comes to the question of a Palestinian state, anything is possible. Which, given the frustrating and enduring problems attendant to the issue, is almost tantamount to saying that nothing is possible.

That is to say, it is possible that a tremendous breakthrough will soon occur and a Palestinian state will become a reality. The arc of history would then bend toward justice, or at least show itself as progressively less unjust. In the absence of such an event, however, certain stop-gap measures will have to suffice. The Palestinian Authority's announcement that it plans to seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN in September is one such attempt, although the benefits of such a diplomatic maneuver are far from certain and its failure, at least in one specific and important sense, is all but assured.

UN Partition PlanThe West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem—the constituent pieces of the future Palestinian state, although they only comprise 23 percent of Mandate Palestine—have been occupied by Israel for nearly 45 years. U.S.-brokered talks between Israelis and Palestinians are currently suspended, as the latter walked out of negotiations due to Israel's continued settlement-building on land that Palestinians consider integral to their future state. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by the pragmatic Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyed, has been forced into a rapprochement with the execrable Hamas. Since winning legislative elections in 2006, Hamas initiated a brief and bloody civil war with Fatah (the dominant Palestinian political party, which still controls the West Bank and with which Abbas and Fayyed are affiliated) and has governed—it is probably more accurate to say "controlled"—the Gaza Strip since June 2007. Hamas, which is simultaneously an Islamist political party, terrorist group, and social welfare organization, has the destruction of Israel and subsequent founding of an Islamic state in all of Mandate Palestine as objectives in its founding charter. It has, however, appeared to somewhat moderate its views over time, and has offered Israel the possibility of a long-term truce, or Hudna. But a "truce" is different from a lasting offer of peace, and so Hamas's ultimate aims remain suspect. The murkiness of Hamas's positions is likely due to the fact that, similar to the Muslim Brotherhood (the Egyptian organization from which Hamas sprang), Hamas contains both hardliners and relative moderates. The task for the Palestinian Authority, and the international community at large, will be to marginalize the first group through inducements like foreign aid and co-opt moderates into the political process. Whether this is possible is a very open question, and thus Hamas presents a major obstacle to any future peace settlement. Ironically, however, it is the occupation that sustains Hamas—if the occupation ends, Hamas as we know it will likely end too.

Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have a loveless marriage, to say the least, but it is a necessary one, at least from a humanitarian perspective: 1.6 million people live in the Gaza Strip, in an area about twice the size of Washington, D.C. I do not think it is hyperbolic to refer to Gaza as a giant prison with multiple jailors, Hamas primary among them. Without some kind of unity government (the formation of which at the time of this writing looks uncertain, as Abbas is insisting to the consternation of Hamas that Fayyad be prime minister in any such adminstration), Abbas and the PA will not be able to negotiate in good faith a peace agreement that includes the Strip. Furthermore, in the shorter term, if the Palestinian Authority can regain a foothold in Gaza, and thus provide a moderating influence there, it may help hasten the end of the Israeli and (in a post-Mubarak era, less stringent) Egyptian blockade there, which has been in place since 2007.

This, however, may be extremely wishful thinking. It is just as likely that no Palestinian unity government, not even one headed by Fayyad, will be able to achieve anything of substance in bilateral talks with Israel, because the current Israeli government appears completely intransigent.

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been uniformly, almost singularly, bad for Israel. It has proven itself to be provincial and nearsighted, unable to grasp changing geopolitical trends and unwilling to countenance inexorable demographic realities. Much of Netanyahu's coalition—including, I think it is safe to say, Netanyahu himself—does not in fact desire an end to the occupation; in fact, some parties in the coalition believe that Jews are biblically enjoined to settle in "Judea and Samaria," the Hebrew term for the West Bank. Moreover, the settlers (or if you prefer a less genteel term, one without the romantic overtones of the frontier, the colonizers) are often Haredi, or ultra-orthodox, Jews, many of whom consider their fealty to the Israeli state secondary at best. Other parties in Netanyahu's government, most prominently Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, are loath to concede land putatively because of security concerns. And there is a resistance to ending the occupation for more mundane reasons: housing is often cheaper in the West Bank. The Israeli government offers subsidies for the construction of housing in the West Bank, as well as subsidized loans and grants for those who wish to buy homes there. Not only are these policies inimical to ending the occupation, they are in fact designed to produce the opposite outcome. One cannot simultaneously prepare for a Palestinian state and deepen the structure of the occupation, not without either some level of deep cognitive dissonance or alarming disingenuousness.

Netanyahu has managed temporarily to stymie both the Palestinian leadership and the Obama administration, but he cannot outsmart time itself. If the occupation continues, Palestinians will soon make up an absolute demographic majority in Israel and the occupied territories. Settlements, some of which are deep within the West Bank and threaten the contiguity and viability of a Palestinian state, are poisonous to a two-state solution. One day Palestinians may simply demand that Israel make them full citizens, which would mean the end of Israel as we know it. What, after 50, or 75, or 100 years of occupation could Israel say in return? It could choose to remain a Jewish state, which would mean continued oppression of the Palestinians and their permanent exclusion from the political process, or it could decide to remain a democratic state—a state for all its citizens—but no longer be the world's lone Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people. Neither option is particularly palatable to Israelis, but the latter one is, expect at the post-Zionist fringes, unthinkable. Thus either the occupation is temporary and Israel is committed to a two-state solution, or the occupation is permanent, and Israelis will become gatekeepers of a very large Palestinian ghetto. And the latter choice is no choice at all, because not only is it morally bankrupt, it isn’t even viable. Continuing the occupation means the end of Israel. It's just that simple.

This brings us to the upcoming Palestinian vote for statehood at the UN in September, where confusion as to the nature and significance of the Palestinian initiative has been the norm, and not the exception.

The Palestinian statehood vote at the UN is really a series of votes that depend on one another. It appears now that the Palestinians, who have possessed UN observer status since 1974, will apply for recognition as a full member state. This requires that the Palestinians first write to the Secretary-General's Office asking for full membership. Then, that office writes a report about the applicant state's viability and adherence to UN standards, which is then passed to the Security Council. The Security Council then votes on the application, requiring nine votes in favor and no veto from any of the five permanent members on the Council. If it passes this hurdle, the matter is taken up in the General Assembly, requiring approval of two-thirds of the members of that body.

The Palestinians claim that they would have no problem garnering two-thirds of the votes in the General Assembly in favor of their membership request; they are very probably right. There are currently 193 UN member states (including South Sudan, admitted according to the procedure I just described on July 14th, 2011). According to Mahmoud Abbas, 117 countries already recognize Palestine, and he expects the number to climb to about 130 by September. Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, expects over 130 states to support their initiative in the General Assembly, including some (as yet unnamed) EU member states.

There is, however, that pesky detail about Security Council approval. Russia and China are seen as sympathetic to the Palestinian initiative, and unlikely to exercise their veto. France and the UK have been ambiguous about their position, but are not considered outwardly hostile to the initiative. That may change over time, though. According to the Guardian, while "the US sees Britain's position as useful while it is trying to get the two sides back to negotiations…if it came to a vote, it would want Britain to back the US line." Whether Britain will comply with U.S. wishes is unclear.

What, then, is the U.S. position on the matter? The Obama administration has already made it explicitly clear: it will veto any attempt by the Palestinians to achieve full member state status at the UN. That's it. Because of this brute fact, the Palestinian initiative is a non-starter. U.S. domestic politics reflect (or more likely, drive) this position. A discomfiting alliance of Christian Zionists and right-wing Jewish pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] help make U.S. policy toward Palestinians almost completely hostile. For example, the U.S. Senate has already passed a resolution threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority should it continue to pursue recognition at the UN. The resolution passed 89-0. It had 88 co-sponsors. A parallel bill is scheduled for a vote in the U.S. House of representatives, where 293 representatives have already indicated they will vote for it.

I note this not to single out the U.S. as some uniquely capricious and unreasonable member of the Security Council—China has previously used its veto to block Taiwan's UN membership application, and Russia has done likewise with Kosovo—but to point to the absurdity of both U.S. diplomacy and domestic politics on this specific matter. The Obama administration rightly understood that settlement growth was the biggest threat to a two-state solution, which is why it pressured Netanyahu to continue the moratorium on building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu refused, and the negotiations predictably ceased. Given this intransigence, why would Obama give up his biggest bargaining chip—the veto—without setting any preconditions with Netanyahu, for example, an indefinite settlement freeze? The U.S. possesses a great deal of leverage over Israel, more than any other country by far—but in this case it has used exactly none of it.

IsraelThe Palestinians are very much aware of the U.S.'s position, and so they have developed a multi-pronged strategy. If, as is almost certain, their efforts for full UN membership are stymied by a U.S. veto, their plan appears to be to seek a resolution in the General Assembly that recognizes a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The General Assembly has no law-making powers, and the resolution would possess no legal force. Nor would it compel states to recognize Palestine—that is the prerogative of individual states. It would, however, carry with it a certain moral force, especially if an overwhelming number of states support it, as is likely. The Palestinians may then go back to the Security Council and again attempt to seek full member state status. This would put tremendous pressure on the U.S., as it has in fact affirmed its support for a Palestinian state roughly on 1967 lines (i.e., including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem), after all. Alternatively, Palestinians may seek to upgrade their status at the UN from "observer" to "non-member state," which requires General Assembly but not Security Council approval. Although less definitive than full UN membership, this would strengthen the Palestinian case for wider recognition as a state, and would potentially make it easier for them to accede to international treaties like the Rome Statute, and thus become a state-party to international bodies such as the International Criminal Court. While non-parties to the Rome Statute can accept ICC jurisdiction—as Palestine has since 2002—they cannot refer potential international crimes to the court. Only states-parties can do so, and if Palestine is recognized as such, they could refer purported international crimes committed by Israelis on Palestinian soil to the ICC.

That said, the inherent vagaries of international law, and especially those laws concerning the nature and constitution of statehood, make all this somewhat speculative. What the ultimate objective of the Palestinian leadership is remains unclear. They may use a UN Resolution affirming the Palestinian state to simply declare an independent Palestine, just as Israel used UN Resolution 181 ("The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine") of 1947 as a pretext for its declaration of independence in 1948. But merely declaring one's independence does not mean independence as such. The occupation would not simply vanish overnight, and major powers like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany would be highly unlikely to recognize an independent Palestine birthed in this manner. Furthermore, a Palestinian declaration of statehood, or just some kind of symbolic resolution at the UN, could lead to increased restlessness in the Palestinian Territories themselves. The effect of such public protest is unknowable: if it catalyzed a campaign of widespread civil disobedience like that in Tahrir Square in Egypt, it could morally empower the Palestinian populace and help hasten the end of the occupation. If, however, protests turn violent and lead to a third intifada, or uprising, it may bring about a cycle of violence that will make a two-state solution impossible. This would be utterly disastrous for both peoples.

Israel also seems to fear that the symbolic recognition of Palestine in the General Assembly will lead to states' imposing economic sanctions against it, but I suspect that most countries that would use the opportunity to do so already do not recognize Israel or trade with it. Sanctions aside, it is true that such a flurry of diplomatic activity—and, no doubt, political theater—will be tremendously discomfiting to Israel. It has fewer and fewer friends on the international stage. Its relationship with Turkey has soured; the Mubarak regime in Egypt has crumbled; sympathies in Western European capitals are no longer as pronounced. Should it continue its current policies, Israel will face increasing isolation. The prospect of becoming a pariah state is worrying to Israel, and is one of the reasons it has commenced a worldwide diplomatic campaign to stymie the Palestinian initiative.

It is true that Israel has been unfairly singled out at the UN over the years for cynical geopolitical reasons, and also because of outbursts of anti-Semitism that range from crude to insidious. Unsurprisingly, it does not consider the UN able to fairly arbitrate issues that concern it. So it is easy to see how swaths of the Israeli public could view the upcoming Palestinian statehood vote through this prism. (The Israel-Palestinian conflict is, in so many ways, a story of competing victimhoods—a competition where the winner is still destined to lose.) But to view the upcoming UN votes along these lines would be a tremendous mistake. The Palestinian Authority is attempting to preserve the two-state solution. This cannot be said of Benjamin Netanyahu, or his coalition government. If the Palestinians' diplomatic maneuvers at the UN help catalyze the formation of an independent Palestine, Israelis may be forced to thank Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyed for ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state.

Jewish sovereignty over parts of Mandate Palestine, the ability for the Jewish people, especially after the Shoah, to be masters of their own fate, is cause for celebration. The violence and suffering that accompanied the birth of Israel and the massive dispossession and pain of the Palestinian people is nonetheless an undeniable tragedy. There is good reason why Palestinians refer to the events of 1947-1948—when roughly 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expulsed from their lands—as the Nakba, or catastrophe. It is time to attempt to partially right these wrongs, and the easiest way to begin is to work toward the creation of a Palestinian state. While it is true that history may often repeat itself—first as tragedy, then as farce—we are not slaves to an inexorable fate. Nothing, not even blood and memory, is written in stone.

You may also like

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

MAY 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Bojan Francuz

This new interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Bojan Francuz, a peace and urbanism expert.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation