Palestinian UNilateralism revisited
Jun 3, 2011
June 3, 2011
Number 06/11 #01
This Update features three notable pieces on the Palestinian efforts to have the UN recognise a Palestinian state in “the ’67 lines” in September, without negotiations or compromise with Israel.
First up is noted American Middle East expert Prof. Fouad Ajami, who strongly argues that the effort is futile. He deals at length with the contention often heard that the UN “created” Israel and can therefore likewise “create” Palestine, noting that it was not the UN, but the concrete achievements of the “Yishuv”, the Jewish community in Palestinian, which actually created Israel. Ajami also puts the Palestinian tactics in some historical perspective, arguing they are redolent of Yasser Arafat’s past delusions that the Palestinian could have “it all” without compromising with Israel. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. Others arguing that the importance of the UN decision is being exaggerated include Israeli writer Moshe Dann and American journalist Benny Avni, while Israeli academic Yossi Olmert and American foreign policy expert Lawrence Haas are somewhat more concerned.
Next up is former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold, who looks in more detail at both the international law relevant to the Palestinian UN effort, and the politics of responding to it. He points out that what the Palestinians are proposing to do is almost certainly in opposition to UN rules, as well as a violation of the Oslo Accords – to which the US and EU are signatories. He concludes by discussing the importance of the European reaction and what Israel can do. For all of his valuable analysis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we offer an essay from American Middle East specialist Jonathan Schanzer, who provides some interesting history and context on the effort. He reveals, for example, that the idea for the Palestinian move was originally hatched by former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during a visit to his country by PA President Abbas in 2005. He also looks at the prospects of the move and concludes that from a Palestinian perspective, the move is both risky and may be badly timed, with most international focus currently on the Arab Spring. For the rest of what Schanzer has to say, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Fouad Ajami also had some interesting comments on CNN on the Syrian unrest and government violence . More on Syria includes comment on the horrible fate of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb and discussion on Western policy by Syrian-born academic Burhan Ghalioun.
- A senior Fatah leader says Fatah has never recognised Israel’s right to exist and never will.
- The Jerusalem Post argues there may be advantages as well as dangers for Israel in Egypt’s re-opening of the Rafah Gaza crossings.
- Meanwhile confirmation that the Egyptian military gave female protesters “virginity tests” and engaged in other mistreatment of them. More on the complexities of the current situation in Egypt here, while the difficult economic elements of the Egyptian situation are outlined by David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
- Two interesting reports from journalists visiting West Bank settlements and correcting myths and misunderstandings about them – here and here.
- Two international law experts note that a recent UN Security Council decision on Libya actually demonstrates that claims that Gaza remains “occupied” by Israel are wrong.
- Some comment (here and here) on Israel’s need and efforts to prepare for future planned efforts to send waves of “refugees” streaming over her borders, beginning, according to reports, this Sunday on the anniversary of the start of the 1967 Six-Day War.
- An Indonesian Muslim scholar discusses the need for the spread of a moderate version of Islam while visiting Israel.
- Barry Rubin looks at some Middle Eastern polls and concludes the US Administration’s efforts to improve the US image in the Middle East are not working.
- Former senior US official responsible for Middle East policy Elliot Abrams calls attention to the problematic role of PA President Mahmoud Abbas during recent US-Israel disagreements about the peace process. Another interesting take on recent America-Israel relations comes from American foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead.
- AIJAC’s Arsen Ostovsky also discussed Israeli PM Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington and Abbas’ problematic stance in a piece that appeared in the Australian Financial Review.
The General Assembly vote that created Israel was the culmination of decades of hard work on the ground.
By FOUAD AJAMI
Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2011
It had been quite a scramble, the prelude to the vote on Nov. 29, 1947, on the question of the partition of Palestine. The United Nations itself was only two years old and had just 56 member states; the Cold War was gathering force, and no one was exactly sure how the two pre-eminent powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, would vote. The Arab and Muslim states were of course unalterably opposed, for partition was a warrant for a Jewish state.
In the end, the vote broke for partition, the U.S. backed the resolution, and two days later the Soviet Union followed suit. It was a close call: 10 states had abstained, 13 had voted against, 33 were in favor, only two votes over the required two-thirds majority.
Now, some six decades later, the Palestinians are calling for a vote in the next session of the General Assembly, in September, to ratify a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. In part, this is an appropriation by the Palestinians of the narrative of Zionism. The vote in 1947 was viewed as Israel’s basic title to independence and statehood. The Palestinians and the Arab powers had rejected partition and chosen the path of war. Their choice was to prove calamitous.
By the time the guns had fallen silent, the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, had held its ground against the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Its forces stood on the shores of the Red Sea in the south, and at the foot of the Golan Heights in the north. Palestinian society had collapsed under the pressure of war. The elites had made their way to neighboring lands. Rural communities had been left atomized and leaderless. The cities had fought, and fallen, alone.
Palestine had become a great Arab shame. Few Arabs were willing to tell the story truthfully, to face its harsh verdict. Henceforth the Palestinians would live on a vague idea of restoration and return. No leader had the courage to tell the refugees who had left Acre and Jaffa and Haifa that they could not recover the homes and orchards of their imagination.
Some had taken the keys to their houses with them to Syria and Lebanon and across the river to Jordan. They were no more likely to find political satisfaction than the Jews who had been banished from Baghdad and Beirut and Cairo, and Casablanca and Fez, but the idea of return, enshrined into a “right of return,” would persist. (Wadi Abu Jamil, the Jewish quarter of the Beirut of my boyhood, is now a Hezbollah stronghold, and no narrative exalts or recalls that old presence.)
History hadn’t stood still. The world was remade. In 1947-48, when the Zionists had secured their statehood, empires were coming apart, borders were fluid, the international system of states as we know it quite new. India and Pakistan had emerged as independent, hostile states out of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and Israel had secured its place in the order of nations a year later. Many of the Arab states were still in their infancy.
But the world is a vastly different place today. The odds might favor the Palestinians in the General Assembly, but any victory would be hollow.
The Palestinians have misread what transpired at the General Assembly in 1947. True, the cause of Jewish statehood had been served by the vote on partition, but the Zionist project had already prevailed on the ground. Jewish statehood was a fait accompli perhaps a decade before that vote. All the ingredients had been secured by Labor Zionism. There was a military formation powerful enough to defeat the Arab armies, there were political institutions in place, and there were gifted leaders, David Ben-Gurion pre-eminent among them, who knew what can be had in the world of nations.
The vote at the General Assembly was of immense help, but it wasn’t the decisive factor in the founding of the Jewish state. The hard work had been done in the three decades between the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the vote on partition. Realism had guided the Zionist project. We will take a state even if it is the size of a tablecloth, said Chaim Weizmann, one of the founding fathers of the Zionist endeavor.
Sadly, the Palestinian national movement has known a different kind of leadership, unique in its mix of maximalism and sense of entitlement, in its refusal to accept what can and can’t be had in the world of nations. Leadership is often about luck, the kind of individuals a people’s history brings forth. It was the distinct misfortune of the Palestinians that when it truly mattered, and for nearly four decades, they were led by a juggler, Yasser Arafat, a man fated to waste his people’s chances.
Arafat was neither a Ben-Gurion leading his people to statehood, nor an Anwar Sadat accepting the logic of peace and compromise. He had been an enemy of Israel, but Israel had reached an accord with him in 1993, made room for him, and for a regime of his choice in Gaza. He had warred against the United States, but American diplomacy had fallen under his spell, and the years of the Clinton presidency were devoted to the delusion that the man could summon the courage to accept a practical peace.
But Arafat would do nothing of the kind. Until his death in 2004, he refrained from telling the Palestinians the harsh truths they needed to hear about the urgency of practicality and compromise. Instead, he held out the illusion that the Palestinians can have it all, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean. His real constituents were in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria and Jordan, and among the Palestinians in Kuwait. So he peddled the dream that history’s verdict could be overturned, that the “right of return” was theirs.
There was hope that the Arafat legacy would go with him to the grave.The new Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had been a lieutenant of Arafat’s, but there were hints of a break with the Arafat legacy. The alliance between Fatah and Hamas that Mr. Abbas has opted for put these hopes to rest. And the illusion that the U.N. can break the stalemate in the Holy Land is vintage Arafat. It was Arafat who turned up at the General Assembly in 1974 with a holster on his hip, and who proclaimed that he had come bearing a freedom fighter’s gun and an olive branch, and that it was up to the U.N. not to let the olive branch fall from his hand.
For the Palestinians there can be no escape from negotiations with Israel. The other Arabs shall not redeem Palestinian rights. They have their own burdens to bear. In this Arab Spring, this season of popular uprisings, little has been said in Tunis and Cairo and Damascus and Sanaa about Palestine.
The General Assembly may, in September, vote to ratify a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. But true Palestinian statehood requires convincing a decisive Israeli majority that statehood is a herald for normalcy in that contested land, for Arabs and Jews alike.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is co-chair of the Hoover Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.
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Israel, the Palestinians, and the UN General Assembly
Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 583
- The public debate in Israel over the Palestinian plan to seek UN support for statehood in September is based on a fundamental misconception: the UN General Assembly cannot by itself establish or recognize a Palestinian state. It can admit new members to the UN only after they have been nominated first by the UN Security Council, where any of the five permanent members could veto the nomination.
- The current Palestinian effort at the UN, moreover, seems redundant. The UN General Assembly already recommended the creation of a Palestinian state on December 15, 1988, and has even insisted on the 1967 lines. The 1988 resolution was backed by 104 countries; only the U.S. and Israel opposed it. But this and other past resolutions (including one as recently as December 18, 2008) did not create a new legal reality, nor did they change anything on the ground.
- In 1998, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was confronted with a plan by Yasser Arafat to declare a state in 1999, the Israeli government warned that such a move would constitute “a substantive and fundamental violation of the Interim Agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians (the Oslo II agreement). It issued a formal statement saying that if such a violation occurred, then Israel would be entitled to take all necessary steps, including the application of Israeli law to settlement blocs and security zones in the West Bank.
- Oslo II clearly established that “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the Permanent Status negotiations” (Article 31). The European Union actually signed Oslo II as a witness. Can EU countries then become active participants in changing the status of the territories whose fate is supposed to be determined only by negotiations?
- Israel must firmly oppose the September initiative in the General Assembly, even if the Palestinians already have the votes. It must make absolutely clear that this move is no less than a material breach of a core commitment in the Oslo Agreements, as the Israeli government asserted in 1998. Only a strong Israeli response will deter Abbas from going further down the road of unilateralism.
The UN General Assembly Cannot Establish a Palestinian State
The public debate in Israel over the Palestinian plan to seek UN support for statehood in September is based on a fundamental misconception: that the UN General Assembly can decide about the existence of new states. Contrary to widespread beliefs, it was not the UN General Assembly that formally established the State of Israel. UN General Assembly Resolution 181, also known as the Partition Plan, from November 29, 1947, only recommended the establishment of a Jewish state. It was an important moral boost for the Jewish people. But the actual legal basis for the creation of the State of Israel was the declaration of independence by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians speak about the UN “recognizing” a new Palestinian state this September. Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah Central Committee member, referred to the PA gaining recognition for a Palestinian state from two-thirds of the UN member-states.1 In early 2011, Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, expanded on the idea of UN recognition: “Such recognition would create political and legal pressure on Israel to withdraw its forces from the land of another state that is recognized within the 1967 borders by the international organization.”2 Indeed, because Abbas wants international recognition to cover both the West Bank, where his government rules, and Hamas-controlled Gaza, he felt driven to seek a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, just recently.
Yet, the General Assembly does not recognize new states either. It can admit new members to the UN only after they have been nominated first by the UN Security Council. If one of the five permanent members of the Security Council refuses to support the admission of a new state to the UN, then there is nothing the General Assembly can do about it. Kosovo is recognized by at least 75 states, but Russia refuses to support its admission to the UN, so it is not a UN member state. The General Assembly has recognized the right of self-determination of national movements; it has accepted different national movements as representing peoples with national aspirations. But the UN General Assembly cannot by itself establish or recognize a Palestinian state. It can only make recommendations for other states to follow in their bilateral contacts.
It should be pointed out that the current Palestinian effort at the UN seems redundant. The UN General Assembly has already recommended the creation of a Palestinian state in the past. It even insisted on the 1967 lines. On December 15, 1988, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 43/177 which acknowledged “the proclamation of the State of Palestine” by Yasser Arafat at the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers on November 15, 1988. It was a virtual state, since it did not meet any of the minimal conditions that international law has determined must be met in order for a political community to be recognized as a state. Nonetheless, the UN went ahead and tried to grant some sort of status to Arafat’s declaration.
The 1988 UN resolution affirmed “the need to enable the Palestinian people to exercise their sovereignty over their territory occupied since 1967.” It was backed by 104 countries; only the U.S. and Israel opposed it (36 countries abstained). Since that time, other UN General Assembly resolutions, as recently as December 18, 2008, reaffirmed the rights of the Palestinians to an independent state. But all these past resolutions did not create a new legal reality, nor did they change anything on the ground. Moreover, they did not alter the fundamental fact that UN Security Council Resolution 242 from November 1967 still stood out as the only agreed basis for every Arab-Israeli peace agreement since 1979. Resolution 242 did not demand of Israel to pull back to the 1967 lines.
Abbas Hopes to be Handed a State
There are several reasons why the Palestinian leadership is pursuing this UN strategy. First, Mahmoud Abbas has been convinced that the UN route allows him to obtain a Palestinian state on a silver platter without having to actually stand up in a hall in Ramallah and issue a declaration. He told Newsweek’s Dan Ephron, in an interview published on April 24, that he is not prepared to declare a state by himself, if the UN General Assembly adopts a resolution on Palestinian statehood. Abbas prefers to be passive and let the international community do all the work. He is not following the sequence of state-creation practiced by Israel’s leader, David Ben-Gurion, in 1947-48.
Abbas knows there are risks if he decides to unilaterally declare a state. In 1998, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was confronted with a plan by Yasser Arafat to declare a state, when the five-year Interim Agreement was to expire in 1999, the Israeli government warned that such a move would constitute “a substantive and fundamental violation of the Interim Agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians (the Oslo II agreement). It issued a formal statement on November 11, 1998, saying that if such a violation occurred, then Israel would be entitled to take all necessary steps, including the application of Israeli law to settlement blocs and security zones in the West Bank. At the time, the U.S. and Israel deterred Arafat’s declaration. This also raises the question: if the 1988 declaration was really a meaningful act, then why did Arafat plan on making another declaration of independence in 1999?
This September, Abbas can say that he is not responsible for what the UN does, but at the same time is looking forward to 130 states or more recognizing the new Palestinian state, in the aftermath of a UN resolution. Under such conditions, he obtains the benefits of statehood without having to take responsibility. It is normal state practice that states only recognize a new state that has already been declared. If Abbas leaves the UN General Assembly in New York after receiving support for a Palestinian state, but does not issue a declaration of statehood in Ramallah, then there could be legal limits on how states respond to this situation. For that reason, there are Palestinian spokesmen who try to put forward a legal argument that Abbas does not have to declare a state because Arafat already made the declaration in 1988.
The real importance of any new UN General Assembly resolution is the follow-up the Palestinians pursue. Abbas’ advisors are probably reading doomsday scenarios in the Israeli press that Israeli settlements and military bases in the West Bank will no longer be “occupiers” but rather “invaders” in a sovereign state. Might Israel be subject to sanctions? It would be irresponsible to dismiss these ideas completely, but to take these next steps, the Palestinians would need the UN Security Council. The Obama administration may not like Israeli settlements, but it is not about to support UN resolutions treating Israel like Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Besides, after pushing a resolution in the General Assembly in defiance of Washington, Abbas will have little credit left to ask for new Security Council actions.
What Will the Europeans Do?
Palestinian diplomatic strategy at the UN has always been based on gaining qualitative support for pro-Palestinian initiatives and not just quantitative backing. In other words, it was not enough for the Palestinians and the Arab bloc to win 130 votes in the UN General Assembly based on the Non-Aligned Movement. Something is clearly missing for the Palestinians if they can only rely on countries like Cuba, Yemen, and Pakistan. For that reason, the European Union’s support for their resolutions is always pivotal. Moroever, many states, like Japan or Argentina, will decide how to vote on the basis of what the European Union decides to do.
Yet, the EU and certain pivotal states in the international community will have certain problems with Abbas’ move, though these concerns are not always apparent on the surface. In the UN system, new states have been admitted when they resolved bilaterally their differences with those states with which they have fundamental disputes. Thus Bangladesh could only become a UN member when it resolved its conflict with Pakistan, of which it was once a part. Europeans are sensitive to the dangers of premature recognition of states in unresolved conflicts, because of their own experiences. The Yugoslav Wars (1991-1995) were ignited when Germany recognized Croatia and Slovenia, prior to solving the problems created by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. And Spain was reluctant to recognize Kosovo, because it feared the precedent that it set for Basque separatists. According to Der Spiegel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is urging Abbas to refrain from a unilateralist course at the UN.3 Abbas cannot take EU support for his September UN bid for granted.
There is another factor that can affect European attitudes, in particular. The 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, also known as Oslo II, clearly established that “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the Permanent Status negotiations” (Article 31). The European Union actually signed Oslo II as a witness. How can the EU then support a Palestinian initiative at the UN which violates this core commitment in an international agreement, when the EU itself is a signatory to the agreement in question? Can EU countries go ahead and recognize a Palestinian state when they then become active participants in changing the status of the territories whose fate is supposed to be determined only by negotiations?
Moreover, because the Palestinians would be violating a signed international agreement with Israel by going to the UN in pursuit of unilateral change of the status of the West Bank and Gaza, they would be engaging in a clearly illegal act. There are implications from this for how states treat the issue of recognition. For example, states strictly adhering to international law would have grounds to deny recognition to a Palestinian state. After all, there is a general principle of law, noted by Professor Malcolm Shaw, that an “illegal act cannot produce legal rights.”4 Furthermore, according to the Second Restatement of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States (1981), a state is required not to recognize or treat as a state any entity which has “attained the qualifications of statehood in violation of international law.”5
Abbas is hoping that European political interests in backing the Palestinians will trump the question of legality. He also wants to change the political context of his struggle with Israel to his favor. He is hoping that any reference to the 1967 lines will weaken the resolve of the Israeli public. He wants to influence the public debate and get Israelis to accept the inevitability of a full withdrawal from the West Bank. He is hoping that Israelis will draw parallels between a UN General Assembly resolution this September and the partition resolution from 1947 and thereby create political momentum that will put new pressures on the Israeli government to make concessions that previous Israeli prime ministers thought would be unwise.
In this sense, Abbas’ move is aimed at shaping the political context of the diplomatic struggle between Israel and the Palestinians in the future in the Palestinians’ favor. He is hoping that the Obama administration will be more reluctant to use the U.S. veto at the UN Security Council if he can obtain an overwhelming vote in his favor at the UN General Assembly. What this means is that Israel’s countermoves should be aimed at affecting the terms of the international debate that Abbas is trying to shift. This is as much a struggle about political consciousness as it is about international law.
What Should Israel Do?
What should Israel do? It must firmly oppose the September initiative in the General Assembly, even if the Palestinians already have the votes. It must make absolutely clear that this move is no less than a material breach of a core commitment in the Oslo Agreements, as the Israeli government asserted in 1998. It cannot leave any doubts about how serious it views Abbas’ move, especially if the UN resolution he seeks mentions the 1967 lines, thereby predetermining Israel’s future borders, without any negotiations, as called for in the Oslo Agreements. It must make clear that Abbas has chosen unilateralism over a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as called for in previous signed agreements.
As an additional step, Israel should ask the Obama administration and Congress to reconfirm the April 14, 2004, U.S. letter to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which specifically ruled out a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and promised “defensible borders” for Israel in the future. The letter was confirmed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress in June 2004. Obama has neither embraced nor renounced the 2004 letter. Israel is not helpless if the Palestinian leadership takes hostile diplomatic action against it. Only a strong Israeli response will deter Abbas from going further down the road of unilateralism.
* * *
1. “PA Will Get Majority UN-Recognition for Palestinian State,” Jerusalem Post, April 19, 2011.
2. Linda Gradstein, “Palestinians to Push for UN Recognition as Independent State,” Aol News, January 10, 2011.
3. Herb Keinon, “EU Split over UN Recognition of Palestinian State,” Jerusalem Post, April 24, 2011.
4. Prof. Malcolm Shaw QC, “In the Matter of the Jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court with regard to
the Declaration of the Palestinian Authority: Opinion,” as submitted to the Prosecutor of the International
Criminal Court in The Hague by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Alex Hertman,
Adv., President, September 9, 2009.
See also: “When an entity comes into existence in violation of certain basic rules of international law, its title to be a ‘State’ is in issue….Illegality of origin might sometimes be taken as grounds for non-recognition.” James Crawford, The Creation of States in International Law, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 74.
5. Tal Becker, International Recognition of a Unilaterally Declared Palestinian State (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2000), p. 17.
Fatah, Hamas, and the Statehood Gambit
Commentary, June 2011
On May 3, Hamas and Fatah, the two largest and most influential Palestinian factions, created a unity government. Following a brutal civil war in 2007 that left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, the two foes appeared to be locked in an intractable conflict. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the Islamist terrorist organization and the militant faction created by the late Yasir Arafat joined forces. A gaggle of analysts, including former Clinton administration adviser Robert Malley, claimed that the agreement had grown out of the Arab Spring protest movements that rocked the Middle East, but that is mistaken. The tenuous deal between Hamas and Fatah was born of a political initiative that could soon have a profound impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This September the Palestinians will ask the United Nations General Assembly to vote on a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) for a state that would encompass the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is likely that this vote will pass the two-thirds majority needed for recognition. “By September 2011,” said the Palestinians’ top man at the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, “we will have 130, maybe 140 countries recognizing the state of Palestine.” That number would include a core group of Latin American, European, and Muslim states.
Hamas found itself on the sidelines as the plans for the declaration were being developed. The Palestinian Authority, the governing entity of the West Bank that is backed by Fatah, had been going it alone. In the end, Hamas could not bear to be left out, and so a deal was hastily struck and signed in Cairo—a deal that included a mutually approved interim unity government that will be supplanted by the results of elections in 2012.
The inclusion of Hamas in this government is a foreign-policy nightmare for the Obama administration. The group has been formally declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department, which automatically means that the United States is legally enjoined from diplomatic engagement with any entity that includes it. And because the Department of the Treasury lists Hamas as a terrorist entity, there can be no U.S. aid to a Palestinian Authority in which Hamas plays a role.
Even before Hamas crept into the picture, members of Congress had already expressed opposition to the unilateral declaration of independence through press releases, letters, and statements. Indeed, a bipartisan resolution against the measure is expected after this article goes to press. The concerns of legislators stem from the fact that the borders of such a Palestinian state would overlap with land controlled by Israel, thus creating a legal and logistical conundrum. Even more telling, the unilateral declaration would grant the Palestinians land before peace—meaning that the Palestinians would be permitted to maintain their state of war with Israel even after a state is declared. This would effectively overturn the central idea of the peace process that has been in place since the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967.
The logic behind the unilateral declaration of independence is simple. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership have not been able to secure land concessions from the Israelis through negotiations. So why not get the demonstrably anti-Israel core of the United Nations to launch an international legal campaign to compel Israel to surrender land that has never been part of a self-governed Palestinian state? Such pressure could force Israel to relinquish the contested territories voluntarily in order to avoid an international boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign.
The question is: How did this idea come to fruition? And why were the United States and Israel caught so flat-footed by it? Therein hangs a fascinating tale that begins, surprisingly, in Brazil.
The UDI initiative has reportedly been in the works since 2005. That year, Abbas traveled to Brazil for the first summit of South American and Arab states, and met privately with Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There, da Silva supposedly told Abbas that when he neared the end of his second term (which expired on January 1, 2011), he would help build a Latin American consensus for a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the UN.
Latin America proved fertile ground for the initiative, especially with the rise of other governments of the left in South America’s most important countries—not only Brazil, but also Chile, Argentina, and especially Venezuela. On February 5, 2008, Costa Rica officially recognized a Palestinian state. In April 2009, Palestinian and Venezuelan officials established diplomatic relations and inaugurated a Palestinian embassy in Caracas. In November 2009, Abbas toured the region, visiting Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Venezuela. That month, Venezuela formally announced support for Palestinian statehood. (Cuba and Nicaragua, then under the control of the Marxist Sandinista regime, had recognized Palestine after an abortive declaration of independence issued by Yasir Arafat in 1988.)
The following year, da Silva continued to advocate for Abbas. In March 2010, he visited Israel and the Palestinian territories, expressing support for the Palestinians and criticizing the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In December, just before his term in office was to expire, da Silva announced that Brazil recognized an independent Palestinian state. With that, the Latin American floodgates opened. Shortly after da Silva’s announcement, Argentina expressed its support for a Palestinian state with pre-1967 war borders. Bolivia and Ecuador recognized Palestine as a sovereign state within the 1967 borders. Uruguay announced its intention to offer recognition in 2011 and further indicated that it would establish diplomatic representation, most likely in Ramallah.
On New Year’s Eve, Abbas attended a ceremony in Brasilia, where he laid the cornerstone for a new Palestinian embassy. In January 2011, other Latin American states joined the diplomatic parade. Chile, home to a Palestinian population of about 300,000, offered its unsurprising support. Guyana, Peru, and Paraguay followed. In February, Suriname joined in. Uruguay followed in March.
Latin America was not the only region to support the UDI initiative. In seeming preparation for this moment, in June 2010, France announced it would upgrade the Palestinian delegation in Paris to a mission led by an ambassador. Spain, Portugal, and Norway did the same later in the year. On December 13, 2010, a group of EU foreign ministers announced that they would recognize a Palestinian state “when appropriate.” This followed French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s announcement that Paris might support a United Nations–created Palestinian state if negotiations remained deadlocked. In the first months of 2011, Ireland, Cyprus, and Greece upgraded the Palestinian diplomatic delegations in their countries, and in March, the United Kingdom and Denmark followed suit.
The exact number of countries that plan to recognize a Palestinian state in September remains unclear. What is clear is that the Palestinians have leveraged the sympathy that exists for them within the international bureaucracy and exploited the pervasive frustration over the continued failure of the peace process. This marks a new and perhaps more mature approach to their Machiavellian designs on Israeli territory. And they have flummoxed Israel with the speed and cleverness of their maneuverings. Palestinian diplomats in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru coordinated between Abbas’s team in Ramallah and Latin American leaders to ensure that recognition of statehood came in rapid-fire fashion. The Israelis didn’t know what was about to hit them.
And what of the United States? There can be little doubt that President Barack Obama has helped to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state. On June 4, 2009, Obama delivered a speech in Cairo calling on the Palestinians to renounce violence. He declared: “Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people.”
In the months that followed, U.S. officials referred openly to Palestinian statehood, even as the prospect for a negotiated peace grew increasingly remote. Then, in a visit to the region in March 2010, Vice President Joseph Biden slammed Israel for building in territories that lay beyond its 1967 borders. While the area was technically North Jerusalem, not East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital, Biden “condemned the action” and stated that the Obama “administration is fully committed to the Palestinian people and to achieving a Palestinian state that is independent, viable, and contiguous.”
This stormy encounter set the stage for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington later that month. Obama presented Netanyahu with a list of demands, including an extended freeze on developments in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In a deliberate snub, Obama declined to dine with Netanyahu. The administration subsequently sent up a series of trial balloons in the American and Israeli media, some suggesting support for a Palestinian state by 2011.
In April 2010, as this drama played out, Obama reportedly told Abbas that he sought to create a sovereign Palestinian state within two years. The White House has never confirmed this, however, and several U.S. officials have gone on record opposing the UDI, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But some recent reports suggested that the White House could tacitly approve it by declining to exercise a veto in the UN if other members of the so-called quartet that came together in 2002 to offer new and unsuccessful pathways to peace between Israel and the Palestinians—the UN, the European Union, and Russia—decide to recognize a Palestinian state.
Now, in a remarkable turn of events, any such notions may have been rendered moot by the Hamas-Fatah deal. As Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza celebrated the announcement, it became clear that the American foreign policy establishment had been caught unawares. The State Department stalled journalists seeking comment. And the White House issued statements indicating that it needed to learn more before issuing guidance.
Regardless of specifics, the deal makes it exceedingly difficult for Washington to support a Palestinian state. Engaging a government that includes Hamas, with its track record of suicide bombings, rockets fired at population centers, and other grisly attacks against Israeli civilians, would run afoul of U.S. law. Besides that, a presidential election year looms, and the Democratic Party will find itself in an extraordinarily difficult position politically if it accedes to a Palestinian state run in part by a terrorist organization—especially when, according to the latest Gallup poll, only 17 percent of Americans say their sympathies lie with the Palestinians more than with Israel (63 percent sympathize with Israel).
The deal also complicates some Palestinians’ efforts to improve their image in the West. In 1988, after decades of deflecting pressure from the West, Arafat recognized UN Security Council Resolution 242, which acknowledged Israel’s right to exist in peace. This move prompted the U.S. to formally engage the Palestinians in diplomacy for the first time in history. A decade later, in 1998, the Palestinian National Council voted to amend the PLO Charter, removing its call for Israel’s destruction. That move led to President Bill Clinton’s efforts to broker a peace deal with Arafat that would have ultimately led to a Palestinian state. Arafat, of course, chose war with Israel instead, which destroyed the image of his movement inside the United States.
After Arafat’s death in 2004, the Palestinians regrouped. But ironically, when the Palestinian civil war with Hamas was raging in 2007, Fatah was starting to regain the trust of the West. This was in part due to the institution-building efforts of the PA’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, perhaps the first Palestinian official with any public integrity. Compared with Hamas, Abbas and his Fatah party appeared moderate and pragmatic. Washington helped train a Palestinian army in the West Bank, and the U.S. contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to the Palestinian Authority. All along, Washington’s goal was to sideline Hamas and foster a more moderate Palestinian polity.
Abbas knew that, and it has made his decision to partner with Hamas all the more painful to the Obama administration. In the end, Abbas’s decision appears to have been a deliberate message to the United States: the Palestinians don’t need you.
From his perspective, Abbas had little to lose. Despite Obama’s call for settlement freezes, the president has done nothing concrete to help move along the Palestinian national project. So, rather than work with Israel and through the good offices of the United States, Abbas chose to enter into an agreement with Hamas in a quest to unite the West Bank and Gaza as part of his pursuit of the unilateral declaration of independence.
Yet despite the clever diplomatic gamesmanship Abbas has demonstrated, his timing may be off. With the Arab world in an unprecedentedly unsettled state, this could be the wrong moment for the Palestinians to attempt to take center stage when the world’s diplomats gather at the UN in September. They may all have bigger and more pressing issues to cope with, such as the demands for democratization, the status of minorities in the region, and myriad new threats to stability. Given the fact that the United States will likely not give a Palestinian Authority interwoven with Hamas a penny of support (particularly if Congress has anything to say about it), the PA will need to rely on the largesse of others, like the Saudis, who will surely have other priorities—and who will not want to empower Hamas, which is a proxy for its greatest regional adversary, Iran.
Abbas has also placed himself in a position of considerable risk. He has implicitly relied on Israeli help to defend the West Bank from Hamas’s advances since the civil war in 2007—military, intelligence, economic, and administrative support to ensure that Fatah remains a strong counterweight to its Islamist rival. The Israelis will likely refuse to provide further assistance.
Finally, it is highly unlikely that the Fatah-Hamas partnership will last. Apart from their mutual vilification of Israel, the two factions cannot agree on the color of hummus. The unity government is merely a symbolic umbrella for the two mini-states that remain under the control of the two warring factions. The end result of this experiment in unity may not be a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood but a second Palestinian civil war.
About the Author
Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is deputy director of the Jewish Policy Center and the author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.