U.N. Recognition of Palestine: What Does It Mean for the Peace Process?

Winning U.N. recognition is unlikely to provide an alternative road-map to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, but it highlights the way the facts on the ground have changed--and have have to be dealt with as the new reality

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The U.S. appears to have failed in its effort to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw or soften his bid to upgrade the U.N. status of the still-hypothetical state of Palestine. And so, on Thursday, the General Assembly will vote on Abbas’ request for non-member-state status. The U.S. will likely be joined by a handful of Western governments in voting “no” on the argument that negotiations with Israel are the only path to Palestinian statehood; more may abstain out of reluctance to be seen saying “no” to either side. But Abbas’ request is likely to be granted by an overwhelming majority. Following hard on the heels of the Israel-Hamas cease-fire in Gaza, Thursday’s events at the U.N. — even if their impact will likely be mostly symbolic — will provide further evidence of Washington’s diminished ability to set the terms for stability in a rapidly-changing Middle East.

The longstanding monopoly of the U.S. on the refereeing role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offered no mechanism for ending the fighting in Gaza and avoiding a deeper and more damaging war, if for no other reason than the fact that it declines engagement with the key Palestinian protagonist in that conflict, Hamas, which it has listed as a terrorist organization. Instead, the U.S. is now essentially sharing mediation duties with the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt.

The Gaza outcome, widely viewed as favorable to Hamas, left President Abbas on the sidelines. And with his political standing already in steep decline because of Palestinian frustration at the status quo on the West Bank, Abbas has chosen to ignore U.S. entreaties (and threats) by seeking recognition at the U.N. Doing so, says former U.S. Mideast negotiator Robert Malley is “an act of [political] survival” for Abbas, calling it “the most moderate expression of his frustration – politically, he has no choice.”

Media reports suggesting Israel will refrain from any dramatic “punishment” of the Palestinian Authority in response to the U.N. vote suggests an awareness of the dangers that arise if the already beleaguered PA  were to collapse under the impact of financial sanctions.

“We examined different ways to react, but eventually the ministers realized that almost whatever we do will hurt Israel at least as much as it will hurt the Palestinians,” a senior Israeli source told Haaretz. “If the [Palestinian] Authority collapses, it will fall on our heads. We don’t have to draw fire immediately after the vote – it’s preferable for the Palestinians to be under pressure to renew the negotiations, as they promised.”

Abbas has, indeed, promised to return to talks immediately after the U.N. vote — a fact that may in fact highlight how little the U.N. verdict will change, because there’s no reason to expect he’ll be offered any more concessions at the negotiating table by an Israeli government led by a party moving steadily to the right than those he declined in previous rounds of talks. Abbas’ Fatah movement, warns the International Crisis Group,  “lacks strategy, direction, resources and momentum, the last of which will be hard to gain as it continues sailing against regional headwinds. Reconciliation with Hamas – that elusive goal, advocated by both sides yet to date genuinely sought by neither – may be the only way to save itself. Once the dust settles, it could perhaps be more earnestly pursued, promoted by Hamas’s new allies, Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. Unifying the national movement also is the best hope for relaunching a credible political process with Israel.”

Although some Abbas aides urged Western leaders to back the U.N. bid or risk boosting Hamas, the Islamist movement appears untroubled by Abbas’ initiative. Indeed, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on Tuesday announced that he had phoned Abbas to wish him well in the U.N. bid which Hamas “welcomes,” while warning that it shouldn’t compromise Palestinian rights.

Hamas has reason to believe the wind is at its back, not simply because because most Palestinians see it as the victor for surviving its most recent military clash with the Israelis, but also because the Arab Spring has remade the regional political landscape on terms favorable to the Islamists. The longstanding U.S. goal of isolating Hamas while building up Abbas has been rendered moot by the fact that so many of Washington’s key Middle Eastern partners — particularly Egypt, Turkey and Qatar — now see the movement as part of their regionally-ascendant Muslim Brotherhood bloc. That doesn’t mean embracing a Hamas strategy based on violence. On the contrary, these new backers are looking to wean Hamas away from the dead-end road of attacks on Israel, and also away from its alliance of convenience with Iran.

Signs of the shift became evident last year when Hamas angered Tehran by moving its headquarters out of Iran’s ally Syria and defied the Islamic Republic’s pressure to support the Assad regime against the rebellion. Instead, the movement’s exile leadership has set up shop in Cairo and Doha.

The break is hardly absolute, of course — Hamas still relied on Iranian weapons for its most important strikes of the recent Gaza clash, and thanked Tehran for its support. Still, the Hamas leadership is split over whether to align principally with Iran or with the more moderate Sunni Islamist bloc. But Hamas’ drift towards the Egypt-Turkey-Qatar camp is certainly causing consternation in Tehran, while prompting some Israelis to see new possibilities. Nahum Barnea, senior columnist at Yedioth Aharonot  noted the reliance of the U.S. on an emerging Sunni Islamist bloc comprising Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, both in respect of the Gaza cease-fire and also in achieving the goal of ousting President Bashar Assad in Syria, and curbing Iranian influence in the Arab world. That bloc had made common cause with Hamas, but in doing so was limiting Iran’s influence in Israel’s immediate neighborhood. “Hamas has been moving away from Iran since the revolution in Egypt,” writes Barnea. “The Gaza operation expedited this process. From this point forward Iran will base its hold on Gaza on Islamic Jihad, which is fully-funded by Tehran.”

Over the past two years, Washington has been forced by the limits of its own influence and capacities to outsource some of its traditional Middle East roles in responding to such crises as Libya and Syria. It now finds itself in a trickier position in respect of Israel and the Palestinians: the moderate Sunni Islamist bloc may oppose Iranian influence and want to avoid war with Israel, but its members are hostile to the Israelis on issues such as the Gaza blockade and the West Bank occupation. “The U.S. now wants the region to fix its own problems as much as possible,” says Daniel Levy, former Israeli peace negotiator now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But none of the key actors on which it would have to rely in order to achieve that — Turkey, Egypt and Qatar — are old-school subjects of Pax Americana, or supportive of traditional U.S. policies and allies.” While they have been American allies for decades, Turkey and Egypt have Islamist regimes that many in the U.S. still are uncomfortable with–and which have social agendas of their own–and Qatar has been pursuing policies in Libya and Syria which have a kind of alacrity that may alarm Washington. Case in point was the Emir of Qatar’s recent pre-conflict visit to the Strip.

The Gaza cease-fire and the U.N. vote don’t offer an alternative roadmap to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, as much as they lay to rest the peace process as we’ve known it. “There is no clear path forward for international diplomacy, but it is quite obvious what does  not work: Waiting for Hamas to go away,” notes George Washington professor Nathan Brown. “As the Obama administration moves into its second term, it makes more sense to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that really exists rather than to pretend that there still is a ‘peace process’ that only needs one more round of quiet talks to succeed.”

Indeed, the takeaway from both the Gaza cease-fire and the U.N. vote on Palestine is that the old peace process has run its course,and the terms of a new one are being negotiated–with more players at the table, not all of whom would have been welcome before.