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The Palestinians' Treacherous Path to the UN

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Pundits and policymakers today are frantically grappling with the various pros and cons concerning the Palestinian Authority's plans to seek recognition from the United Nations General Assembly in September. Regardless of the merit or wisdom behind such a move, the Palestinians seem determined to proceed with their plans unless a viable alternative is provided that could lead to the same result -- the establishment of a Palestinian state -- within a reasonable, and credible, timeframe. The detractors and the supporters of the plan among Israelis and Palestinians do make convincing arguments to back up their positions. Neither side, however, has been willing or able to agree to rules of engagement to support their professed desire to enter into serious negotiations to conclude a peace agreement that meet each others' principle requirements.

The United States, as a member of the UN Security Council could potentially veto a Palestinian request to become a UN member state. The U.S., however, would have to explain its recommendation for or against membership when the UNSC presents to the UNGA in light of the conditions on which a potential state can be rejected from membership. The actual effect on the outcome of the UNGA resolution is unclear at this point, as the UNGA has never moved to accept a state when the UNSC has not unanimously voted in its favor. However, it is also clear that such a move by the U.S. would be counterproductive, and merely prolong the process of Palestinian application for membership. This possibility might also lead the Palestinians to go directly to the UNGA to request admission as a non-member UN state, which would require a 50+1 vote, an easily obtainable goal. This option, however, also undermines the goals of the Palestinians and its opponents. The failure to reengage in negotiations before September or the failure to modify any resolution passed by the UN to produce positive momentum would usher in a period of instability with unpredictable consequences for all: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians.

First, the clear consequences of the UN plan are a major embarrassment of the United States with such a clear failure of its Middle East policy. Long believed to be the only credible mediator of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the internationalization of the conflict serves as a de facto vote of no confidence in the Obama administration's ability to bring the parties back to the negotiating table with a chance to succeed in reaching an equitable peace agreement.

Second, Israel would face an unprecedented wave of delegitimization efforts. The international community will increasingly join in solidarity with the Palestinians, whether for demonstrations in the newly declared state of Palestine, boycotts of Israeli products, or support for putting Israel on trial at the International Court of Justice, or attacking its leaders at the ICC. Furthermore, the U.S.' failure to substantially influence the direction of these discussions will diminish its influence in the Arab-Israeli arena and potentially increase the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem.

Finally, the Palestinians will face an unprecedented test. After a two-year period in which Palestinian leadership has systematically devoted itself to prepare for statehood, where will the Palestinian public now turn to advance the Palestinian national cause and put an end to Israeli occupation after the effort at the UN? The test for the PA will be managing the strategy for the post-UNGA environment alongside the elevated expectations that have come with the international push to recognize Palestine. The PA will continue to be challenged by its rival Hamas and other extremists groups who are prepared for a return to violence as a means to advance the Palestinian agenda, a ploy that could have horrific consequences for the Palestinian people.

So what can be done?

Both Israel and the Palestinians are weary of the unending conflict and yet they have been pursuing counterproductive policies undermining the very premise on which a lasting peace can be erected. If Netanyahu wants to prevent the Palestinians from going to the UN, he must put luring and realistic proposals on the table to give Mahmoud Abbas a face-saving way out. Meanwhile, the Palestinians must demonstrate that they mean what they say and stop promoting old narratives, particularly about the return of Palestinian refugees, thereby deterring the Israelis from taking the Palestinians seriously.

The Arab states' endorsement of the Palestinian move at the UN would have had far greater resonance in Israel had they demanded that the endorsement be conditional upon Hamas permanently renouncing violence and commit itself to a political solution as its counterpart the Palestinian Authority by accepting the Arab Peace Initiative. By failing to do so, they too have signaled to Israel that they are motivated by political posturing rather than trying to genuinely advance the cause of peace.

The stark reality is that each side is heavily invested in their political posturing and is unable to relent in advance of the September showdown. The only way to avoid what will be a period of unprecedented uncertainty that could lead to a resumption of violence is for the United States and the European Union to lead the way, making serious efforts to reconcile their major policy differences. In light of the internal problems of the U.S. and the upcoming presidential campaign, the EU is prone to take more active role in the Middle East Peace Process. HR Ashton's leading role in the recent Quartet meeting shows this needed initiative. Indeed, the U.S. and the EU must find an alternative before September that can help each side save face in order to avoid a potential catastrophe. To that end the Obama Administration could choose between two options:

First: Reaffirming the 1967 borders with land swap:
In his recent speech about the Arab Spring and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict President Obama reaffirmed publicly what has been the basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in all previous negotiations when he stated that:

What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.... We believe 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.

The United States should ask the UNSC to adopt this position and empower the United States to see to its implementation. It has been recently reported that Prime Minster Netanyahu has privately intimated to the U.S. that he is willing to accept the president's proposals provided that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mahmoud Abbas has already indicated that he is willing to enter into negotiations with Israel on the basis of Obama's proposals without asking to amend the reference to Jewish state in Obama's speech and be willing to drop his plans to go the UN for recognition.

There is little doubt that such a resolution will be adopted by the Security Council. As such, admission into the United Nations of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with land swaps would reaffirm the existence of two entities between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. In this sense, it would be a motion taken with the support of a vast majority of the international community declaring that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two-states, not one. Only this time the Palestinians and Arab states will be at the forefront of promoting the formula, rather than rejecting it in favor of renewed violent conflict.

With this support for two states in place, Israel's position against radical groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad will be considerably strengthened. The UN vote's locking in the two-state formula would undermine extremist arguments to wipe out the Jewish state. As such, the international community is likely to be more receptive to Israel's security concerns vis a vis these fringe groups who will not only be opposing peace with Israel but also the formula for a two-state solution endorsed and re-endorsed by the international community, as well as the entire Arab world.

Second: Offering general parameters for a solution:

The second option, which is less preferable, especially to the Israelis, would be for the Obama administration to join leading EU members Britain, France and Germany, perhaps with HR Ashton as a spokeswoman who are considering to propose a UN resolution that would simply reaffirm four basic parameters to be discussed between the two parties in any future negotiations: 1) the future border to be established based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps, 2) security arrangements that both end any sign of occupation and prevent terrorism, 3) a shared capital in Jerusalem and 4) a just solution to the Palestinian refugees. Rather than offer a detailed framework for an agreement that would be rejected by each side, these terms provide a general framework with regard to the need to establish two states and to address the core final status issues, starting with borders and security as proposed by President Obama. In doing so, the resolution should be framed as a continuation of the efforts the UN has made on this issue since the end of the 1967 Six day War. In this regard, the resolution could serve to reaffirm the spirit of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which endorse the land for peace formula, which will be critical to realize the vision of a two-state solution. Finally, such a resolution must recognize the legitimate security needs of both Israelis and Palestinians, and renounce all forms of incitement and terrorism.

Having failed since taking office to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process, it would be understandable if the Obama administration simply tries to veto the resolution in an effort to curry favor with Israel's advocates in the United States, especially the evangelical movement, prior to the upcoming presidential election. But it would be a major mistake. Without successful diplomacy to find an alternative path forward, the U.S. position will be considerably undermined in the Middle East, where the U.S. is in need of influence at a time of change and upheaval. The administration must be realistic in its outlook. A final peace agreement in the short-term simply is not possible given the current political postures of the two sides.

Yet a different, nuanced and creative resolution that provides international support for the two-state solution and a workable framework to bring the parties back to negotiations could prevent both Israelis and Palestinians from racing towards a new quagmire with unpredictable consequences at the United Nations General Assembly in the fall.

A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on July 29th, 2011 and is available online here.