As we go to press, the Palestinian Authority has announced it will request full membership as a state at the UN Security Council. If Washington vetoes the move or the PA backs down, the Palestinians will probably seek a status upgrade at the General Assembly, from observer to nonmember observer state.
The PA’s appeal to the world body arises from the collapse of a two-decade Oslo “peace process” that has brought the Palestinians neither peace nor a state. But there is confusion at the heart of the move: is it an elaborate ruse to strengthen the PA’s hand in negotiations, or is it a new diplomatic strategy grounded in international law and political mobilization but born of the opportunities opened by the Arab revolutions?
It’s certainly a risk. Any bid before the Security Council will incur not only a US veto but Congressional sanctions and Israeli retaliation, including a possible ban on transfer of PA revenues to pay its 180,000 employees. Even an upgrade, which carries a lesser status, could incur Israeli reprisals. And both could trigger violence in the occupied territories and beyond. UN membership is said to be the preference of PA president Mahmoud Abbas, his Fatah movement, most Palestinians and the Arab League. The upgrade already has the support of most nations at the General Assembly, including several European states. The EU’s official position as a bloc, however, is to support a return to negotiations.
The Obama administration sees both a veto and a no vote as a train wreck. Either action would deepen—at a time of revolutionary upheaval—the already widespread Arab perception of America as Israel’s defender and Palestine’s enemy. Embassies in Cairo and Damascus have been burned for less. Former Saudi US ambassador Turki al-Faisal has warned that if Washington vetoes a Palestinian state, it will lose Saudi Arabia, historically its closest Arab ally.
The PA’s turn to the UN is an act of last resort. Since Obama was elected there have been just two weeks of PA-Israeli negotiations. Obama’s last throw on the PA’s part was a plea last year for Israel to obey a partial freeze on settlement construction. Israel refused, for the third time. Obama later vetoed a unanimous Security Council resolution calling for a freeze, something that had been Washington policy.
UN membership would strengthen the PA legally and politically. Even an upgrade may allow it to join bodies like the International Criminal Court; there, say legal experts, it could potentially prosecute Israel for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including the illegal transfer of settlers into occupied territory. The PA also knows that an overwhelming show of support for nonmember observer state status would not only strengthen its claim to eventual statehood. It would expose the United States and Israel as the real holdouts in the conflict, and “finally extract a price for US shameless pandering to Israel,” says Palestinian analyst Rashid Khalidi.
It could also help revive mass grassroots activism, which had largely vanished from the Palestinian struggle. In May refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the territories marched in protests commemorating the Nakba, the dispossession and exile caused by Israel’s creation. Similar marches are planned around the UN bid. Activists say the aim is not simply to endorse “a last chance for a two-state solution,” as PA slogans put it. Indeed, some activists worry that the UN move could weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization’s status as the representative of the Palestinian people as a whole, and especially the refugees’ right of return. But others see the bid as a potential mobilizer to unite a people that during the Oslo era became “un-nationed” into its fragments: West Bankers, Gazans, East Jerusalemites, Israeli Palestinians and stateless refugees. To them, the UN move is part of a new strategy that replaces the Oslo paradigm of unequal and bilateral negotiations with international law, popular protest, regional solidarity and national unity.
Is this the PA’s vision? For many in the current leadership, the UN bid is not about the death of Oslo but its resurrection. Abbas has said he would scrap the UN move if only Washington would compel Israel to return to negotiations based on 1967 lines and a settlement freeze. He has also said he will return to negotiations no matter what happens at the UN.
More seriously, he has stalled reconciliation talks with Hamas for fear they would harm international (read US and European) support at the UN. For many Palestinians, the rapprochement with the Islamists not only ended the conflict between rival authorities; it paved the way for new PA elections in the territories, and the hope of a democratically reconstituted PLO beyond them. The partial collapse in unity talks has aroused suspicions among some Palestinians that Abbas’s UN move is less about reinvigorating the national cause than retaining political control.
Likening the PA’s UN bid to the Arab revolutions is attractive but facile. Palestinians’ primary enemy is not autocracy; it is occupation. And their primary goal is not democracy; it is freedom. Where their struggle chimes with those of their kin in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria is in the fact that no change will come via leaderships or alliances that remain wedded to the ancien régime. If the UN bid really marks a break with a negotiating paradigm based on US control, Israeli domination and Palestinian retreat, then it may be the start of a new strategy. But if it is only brinkmanship meant to force a US-guided return to negotiations on slightly better terms, then it is the ancien régime dressed in new UN clothes. That paradigm was tried for twenty years, and the only thing it delivered was US-guaranteed impunity for Israel to colonize another people’s country. It’s as over as Oslo.