Speaking at the UN general assembly on September 23, 2010, Obama said that he hoped that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” Palestinians decided to take Obama at his word.
Obama’s efforts to rekindle the Middle East peace process began with Israel’s refusal to carry out a temporary settlement freeze. The United States was even willing to offer a $3 billion arms deal to Israel in return for the suspension of building Jewish-only settlements in areas earmarked for the Palestinian state. But Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, rejected the US offer.
Nine months later, Obama made another effort to kick-start the talks. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” he said in May.
Once again, Palestinians accepted Obama’s formula, while Netanyahu publicly rejected it, leaving Palestinians with no other nonviolent alternative but to go to the UN to seek a state based on the 1967 borders. In 1967, it should be recalled, Israel occupied the remainder of historic Palestine and other Arab territories following the June War. Shortly after the war, the UN Security Council declared in the preamble to Resolution 242 that “it is inadmissible to occupy land by force.”
This is not the first time that the UN has been called upon to arbitrate the intractable Middle East conflict; nor have only Palestinians approached. Back in 1947, when the UN General Assembly voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, Jews of the British Mandatory state of Palestine danced in the streets of Tel Aviv. Today’s Israelis are rejecting recognition of Palestinian statehood on a much smaller territory than that assigned to Arabs by the original partition.
In more recent history, since 1991’s Madrid Conference, direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians have taken place in various formats. Palestinians made one compromise after another, hoping that partial agreements would lead to statehood. The 1993 Oslo accords set in motion a peace process that was supposed to last five years, with the end goal being an independent Palestinian state and a safe, secure, and recognized Israel.
But the peace process exposed a permanent inability to agree on anything of real substance.
Worse, direct talks have not only failed to produce the desired results; their continuation has also helped to mask widespread construction of Israeli colonies on Palestinian territory. Palestinian lands continue to be confiscated, Jewish-only settlements continue to be built, and Israel’s so-called “security wall” has strangled the Palestinians socially and economically. The International Court of Justice at The Hague has ruled that the wall built inside Palestinian territory is illegal under international law, yet nothing has been done to enforce that ruling.
Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the PLO and President of the Palestinian Authority, who has vowed not to run for re-election, has chosen to take the path of UN recognition rather than continue with the charade of useless – indeed, harmful – direct talks. And, clearly, that change in tactics has hit a raw nerve with Israelis and frustrated the US. Few Palestinians see anything wrong with the move, although many are not certain that it will produce much in the way of immediate and tangible results.
Nonetheless, the Palestinian public is pleased for now with a leadership that has found the backbone to stand up to pressure from Israel and the US. This will certainly help Abbas in the short term. But if the UN move does not bear fruit within a reasonable timeframe, the public might turn against its political leaders – as well as against the Israeli occupiers.
So what, exactly, is Abbas hoping to achieve? The UN General Assembly, unlike the Security Council, cannot declare a state, and the US has vowed to veto any Security Council resolution that recognizes Palestine’s independence. But, if two-thirds of its members agree, the General Assembly can recognize Palestine as a state with observer status, similar to the Vatican. At that point, the international community would be obliged to begin acting against any party that was denying Palestine the right to behave as a fully functional and sovereign state.
Moreover, as a state (even with observer status), Palestine could seek legal relief from the International Court of Justice. It might also try, within the General Assembly, to invoke the rarely used United for Peace resolution (the last time was against South Africa’s apartheid regime).
Palestinians’ desire to obtain a UN vote on statehood (in whatever form) does not mean that they cannot have direct negotiations with Israel. Palestinian spokesmen, including Abbas, have said that they see no reason why representatives of the newly recognized state cannot negotiate with representatives of Israel. If the UN vote succeeds, however, it will not be a people talking with their occupiers, but two states negotiating about how to manage their relations in peace and harmony.
Daoud Kuttab, a former professor at Princeton University, is General Manager of the Community Media Network in Amman.