JERUSALEM – Israelis and Palestinians are preparing for a showdown at the United Nations in September, when the Palestinian leadership will ask for recognition of a Palestinian state within the borders that existed before the Six Day War in 1967 (when Israel seized control of Jordanian-occupied territory). The details of the bid remain unclear, and the effort entails serious risks. But a sober assessment of what might follow a UN endorsement of Palestine’s borders allows for some cautious optimism.
Given the lasting stalemate in bilateral negotiations with Israel, a Palestinian focus on a non-member state bid at the UN General Assembly might very well increase the likelihood of jump-starting the process. The Palestinian plan already has resulted in an unprecedented diplomatic frenzy. While Palestinians travel the world soliciting votes, Israeli officials are engaged in last-minute efforts to dissuade countries from supporting what they perceive as Palestinian unilateralism.
The diplomatic push has so far yielded somewhat predictable results. While the United States has declared its intention to veto a declaration in the Security Council, several European countries, including the United Kingdom and France, intend to back the Palestinian move should negotiations with Israel remain elusive. In a show of broad Third World solidarity, the majority of states represented in the UN General Assembly have signaled clear support for the Palestinians.
These global disagreements reflect competing assessments of the UN move in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In Jerusalem, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has repeatedly warned of a “diplomatic tsunami” and a new wave of violence if the Palestinians do not change course. In the meantime, voices on the Israeli right have threatened to respond to a UN vote by immediately canceling the 1993 Oslo Accords.
So far, these warnings have had only a limited effect in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestine National Authority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remains determined to move forward. On Wednesday, Abbas reaffirmed that the UN bid would proceed “even if negotiations resume.”
From Abbas’s perspective, the ground is well prepared. State-building efforts have reformed previously defunct Palestinian institutions, and have enabled significant economic growth. Of course, there are serious budgetary problems. Paying bills is difficult, not only because Israel is slow in transferring customs revenues, but also because promised aid from Arab countries often never arrives.
Still, the World Bank declared this spring that Palestinian institutions are “well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.” In addition, strong public support and high expectations in the Palestinian territories would make a last-minute change of course politically risky.
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Currently, Palestinians oscillate between two options that imply either addressing the Security Council in a bid for full UN membership, or appealing to the General Assembly, should a US veto render success there impossible. While the Security Council would be able to grant legally binding membership status, a vote in the General Assembly would simply upgrade a Palestinian entity to the status of a “non-member state” – like the Vatican.
Confronted with the prospect of a US veto, an increasing number of international observers flatly oppose the Palestinian plan, on the grounds that it is unlikely to generate concrete political gains and would merely deflect attention from the main requirement of Middle East peace-making: a return to the negotiating table.
But a nuanced Palestinian resolution that moves beyond a zero-sum mindset and embraces legitimate Israeli concerns is possible, and could very well increase the likelihood of a return to constructive negotiations. Such an approach would need to define the UN vote not as an alternative to a negotiated solution, but as an important step towards a viable bilateral peace process. Last week, Abbas moved in this direction by declaring that Palestinians would “still be ready to resume negotiations even after the UN vote.”
Here, the lack of detail about the UN resolution allows room for maneuver. Such an approach would begin with refraining from forcing an immediate vote – and a dramatic US veto – in the Security Council. Instead, a carefully drafted motion in the form of a non-member state bid in the General Assembly could mark the way forward.
Drafted with reference to UN Resolution 181 (which partitioned Palestine in 1947), such a motion would reaffirm the establishment of a Palestinian state and a state for the Jewish people, based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed border adjustments and security arrangements.
While such an approach would certainly fall short of maximalist Palestinian demands, it would embrace the parameters outlined in May by US President Barack Obama. It would also indirectly address the Israeli government’s demand that the Palestinians recognize a “Jewish state.”
Such a vote would also address international calls for bilateral diplomacy. Instead of closing doors, such a redefinition of the statehood bid at the UN would provide the Palestinian leadership with a much-needed symbolic success, including a framework from which to restart negotiations – a longstanding Palestinian demand.
As such, the UN bid might well transform a confrontation into a potentially constructive tool of diplomacy. Focusing on the looming September showdown should not prevent decision makers from looking ahead. Any vote at the UN will be followed by the day after. Palestinians and Israelis need to prepare for that day now.