The United Nations General Assembly vote on November 29, upgrading the Palestinian mission at the UN to the status of an “observer state” was a unilateral move which violated a core tenet of the Oslo Accords, stipulating that neither party would attempt to unilaterally change the legal status of the West Bank and Gaza.
While the UN vote may lack the authority to effect such change, it’s clear that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is hoping to use the vote as a political crowbar in order to pry away the West from their allegiance to the principles set in place by the vastly more weighty UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967.
That resolution, which is the cornerstone of the land for peace formula on which the Oslo Accords is based, calls for an Israeli withdrawal “from territories” captured in the war of June that year – intentionally allowing for revisions to the cease-fire lines put in place in 1949.
As Abbas told the newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida last month:
“[After the vote], we want to establish that the Palestinian territories that were [taken] in 1967 including Jerusalem [are occupied], since Israel… says that the territories occupied in 1967 are disputed territories. In other words, up for negotiations.”
Palestinian officials have also made clear their desire to use the upgrade as a way to internationalise the conflict and open new fronts of attack against Israel in the United Nations and elsewhere, particularly at the International Criminal Court.
For that reason, the Australian Government’s decision to abstain on the vote, instead of joining the US, Canada, the Czech Republic, and a handful of other courageous countries in voting against the spurious resolution, was particularly disappointing.
Even more so were the regrettable choices of New Zealand and several European countries to vote for the measure.
Instead of bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians closer, this damaging vote pushed it further away.
Many of the countries which supported the vote, either explicitly or implicitly, showed a lack of understanding about these potential adverse consequences.
This came into focus in the days following the vote, when the Israeli cabinet announced it would allow planning to move forward for more Jewish housing in east Jerusalem and a new neighbourhood in the area known as E1 in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’ale Adumim – leading to widespread but ill-informed condemnation.
While one may question the political wisdom and timing of such a move – and many in Israel do – it’s important to realise that, contrary to many media portrayals, it represented neither a “punishment” against the Palestinians nor a plot to preempt the possibility of a future two-state outcome.
Rather, this was a relatively measured response to a unilateral Palestinian attempt to create international momentum to prejudge the issues of settlements and final borders entirely in favour of the Palestinian maximalist position and abandon the signed commitment to negotiate over them. It was a message that the stated Palestinian hope that the international community would settle the matters in dispute for them was not going to work.
The misleading and erroneous claims that E1, if built, would “cut the West Bank in two” or render a two-state outcome an impossibility have been effectively debunked by knowledgeable sources including former US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, and disavowed by such prominent news outlets as the New York Times, which issued a correction after these false claims appeared on its pages.
Moreover, the recent settlement controversy is really just a tempest in a teapot, since the broad outline of how to resolve the settlement issue in a final peace deal has been largely agreed in past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
According to that framework, Israel will retain major settlement blocs near Jerusalem, home to the large majority of settlers, in exchange for land swaps of territory inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders and evacuate the rest.
Palestinian negotiators have accepted this idea in principle, and Israel’s recent announcement was very much within the parameters of this consensual understanding. Moreover, all serious peace plans that have been proposed include E1 in the settlement blocs Israel will keep.
It is worth repeating yet again that Israeli policies in place since the 2004 Bush-Sharon agreement mean no new land is being taken for settlements – which currently make up less than 2% of the West Bank. Therefore, claims that growth in Israeli settlements is making a future two-state solution impossible are just absurd.
Unfortunately, in the rush to criticise settlements, many observers have ignored some of the most significant obstacles to peace.
By far the most important of these is the fact that the Palestinian leadership is refusing to engage in any constructive negotiations with their Israeli counterparts, despite repeated, ongoing pleas from Jerusalem to do so.
Others include incitement in Palestinian schools and official media, the continued rejectionism by elements of the PLO, corruption and poor allocation of international aid, lack of PA elections, and the continued inability of the PA to speak for all of the Palestinian people, with Hamas in control of Gaza and unreconstructed in its determination to destroy Israel.
An emphatic reminder of this came during the recent visit of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Gaza.
Yet instead of rejecting Meshal’s incitement to violence, PA officials are rewarding Hamas with gestures toward warmer ties.
As Israel prepares to go to the polls, Abbas, who reportedly wooed over some countries for the UN vote with the promise to return to negotiations with Israel, stands at a crossroads.
He can choose to squander the political capital he amassed at home from his UN win and escalate hostilities with Israel, trying to beat Hamas at their rejectionist game.
Or, he can use his mandate to return to the bargaining table, immediately and without preconditions, as Israel has consistently requested, and prepare his people for the difficult compromises necessary for advancing peace.