Israel’s Best Hope to Thwart Palestinian U.N. Plan May Be Palestinians’ Own Strategic Doubts

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Israel’s government currently lacks a credible plan for getting it out of a diplomatic tight spot if the Palestinians go ahead with a plan to seek U.N. recognition of a state in September. But don’t bet against the Palestinian leadership letting the Israelis off the hook as a result of their own divisions over whether to go the U.N. route.

Israel’s foreign ministry was reported, last week, to be preparing a massive diplomatic campaign to block support for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood on 1967 lines in September. The campaign, as outlined in documents published by Haaretz, appears to suffer from a fundamental flaw — it demands that other countries support Israel’s position on the grounds that going to the U.N. means the Palestinians are seeking to “erode the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” but doesn’t appear to address the international community’s expectation that Israel embrace the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution to the conflict.

It’s difficult to convince most U.N. member states that recognizing Palestinian sovereignty in territories occupied by Israel in 1967 somehow erodes Israel’s legitimacy, which was incontrovertibly established by its own recognition as a U.N. member state in 1949. That’s because neither the U.N. — or even the U.S. — recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 (in this case, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem). So recognition of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines does not delegitimize Israel, as such; it simply extends the international community’s longstanding rejection of Israel’s continued occupation of those territories to a recognition of Palestinian sovereignty over them. And that would mean that for Israel to have its claim to any of those territories recognized, it would require the consent of a sovereign Palestinian entity —  presumably established through a quid-pro-quo negotiation.

The problem with centering the Israeli case against a U.N. vote in favor of Palestinian statehood on this “delegitimization” argument is that it fails to address international impatience to see the conflict solved on the basis of a Palestinian state created alongside Israel, based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps and with its capital in East Jerusalem. To dissuade other countries from supporting a U.N. vote, the Israelis would have to show that negotiation with the Netanyahu government offers a credible route to such an outcome. And that’s difficult to show, of course, because Netanyahu has thus far declined to negotiate on those terms.

That’s the point hammered on by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who tells anyone who’ll listen that he far prefers negotiations to a U.N. vote, but claims, alas, that Netanyahu is not prepared to negotiate seriously on those terms. Unless Israel gives third countries reason to believe otherwise, chances are that it will lose the diplomatic battle.

That’s if there’s a diplomatic battle, of course. The Israelis may not need to win the argument, in the end, because the Palestinians may yet simply fold — as a result of internal divisions and pressure from Western donors on the entirely-aid dependent Palestinian Authority.

For the Palestinian leadership, it’s not clear whether seeking U.N. recognition has ever moved beyond a threat to dangle over the U.S. and Israel if no concessions are forthcoming. There’s certainly little sign, thus far, that it forms part of a coherent strategy for pursuing Palestinian national goals.

Haaretz reported last that Palestinian leaders are sharply divided over whether to go ahead with the plan: While Abbas is said to favor the move, the report named Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, former negotiator Ahmed Qureia and former PLO U.N. envoy Nasser al-Kidwa as among a group of senior officials strongly opposed. Their reasons are said to range from concern over the impact such a move would have on PA funding and Palestinian relations with Washington, to the fear that it would effectively limit Palestinian statehood to those areas currently under PA control, playing into Netanyahu’s hands.

Western leverage may also be evident in Abbas’ nomination of Fayyad to continue as Prime Minister in a unity government approved by Hamas and Fatah. Hamas immediately, and predictably, rejected the nomination, setting the stage for a tense encounter when the two sides meet in Cairo on Tuesday to approve names for a new administration.

Fayyad, an independent, is loathed by Hamas and is not popular even in Fatah; he was appointed, largely at the behest of the United States as part of a program to bypass the elected structures of Palestinian government, after Hamas was voted in as the ruling party in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006. Fayyad was a key figure in a plan to isolate Gaza and build up an authoritarian development-oriented regime in the West Bank as an alternative. Even today, he owes his place in the Palestinian power structure less to any popular support base than on the favor he enjoys among the donors on which the PA depends. And the fact that he’s being put forward again, risking a showdown with Hamas on a unity agreement that was demanded by the base, is a sign of how difficult the Palestinian leadership is finding the idea of breaking with business as usual.

If Hamas stands its ground on Fayyad and the issue becomes a breaking points in the unity agreement, that would be a portent of what to expect on the U.N. vote — it would mean that when push came to shove, Abbas was unwilling to rupture relations with Washington. In which case, the Israelis wouldn’t really need a strategy to head off a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood.