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“Palestine” at the UN: Israeli Nightmare or Arab Pipe Dream?

June 10, 2011

by: Joshua Spurlock , BFP Israel Mosaic Radio

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The Setup

As of press time, it certainly appears obvious that the Palestinians intend to go to the UN to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state, likely in September. This comes as they have repeatedly refused to negotiate with Israel. The last round of peace talks was halted last year by the Palestinians at the end of Israel’s ten-month settlement construction freeze. Since then, the Palestinians, setting up preconditions not imposed in the more than 15 years since the beginning of the “peace process,” have repeatedly rebuffed Israeli calls for more negotiations. Now the goal appears to get the UN to provide the Palestinians with additional political weight to force even more concessions and compromises from Israel or perhaps impose a solution on Israel altogether. But that nightmare scenario for Israel seems highly unlikely.

Dr. Ruth Lapidoth, professor emeritus of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Bridges for Peace in an interview that the only legally binding steps the UN can take on statehood is in the powerful Security Council. Therein lie some problems for the Palestinians. Five nations hold veto power in the Council, including the US, who has repeated its opposition to unilateral Palestinian statehood creation at the UN. In comments by e-mail in April, a US State Department official told Bridges for Peace, “The tough issues between Israelis and Palestinians can only be solved by direct negotiations between the two parties, not in New York [at the UN].”

A failed vote at the Security Council wouldn’t end Palestinian efforts, as the Palestinians could still go to the UN General Assembly. While the Palestinians have a potential majority there and no veto fears, the General Assembly could only give symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood. Such a step would not be welcome by Israel, but it certainly wouldn’t be apocalyptic.

UN Security Council “Power of Veto”

Alan Baker—director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former Israeli ambassador to Canada and former legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry—speaking with Bridges for Peace in an interview, said that the General Assembly recognition is just a recommendation, which can’t impose a solution on Israel. He said that ultimately the Palestinians are “going to have to negotiate with Israel…There are a number of issues that simply can’t be determined by going to the General Assembly at the UN and having the General Assembly impose some type of framework. It can’t be done.”

On the other hand, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom—a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel who participated in Israeli peace negotiations in the 1990s—noted there is still some meaning in a General Assembly resolution. He told Bridges for Peace, “Although it is not legally binding, that doesn’t mean that it is meaningless…It will have implications,” noting that the consequences for Israel’s inability to adhere “will mostly concern a further deterioration of the foreign relations of Israel.” What’s more, there’s still at least one more Palestinian move available at the UN: the so-called “Uniting for Peace” initiative that ironically could result in anything but peace for Israel.

The UN Aftermath

This sign was posted in South Africa during apartheid.

According to The Jerusalem Post, such a resolution could allow the recommendation of “collective measures”—sanctions or other steps against Israel—to give teeth to Palestinian statehood recognition and try and force Israel to concede. The Israeli newspaper cited Richard Schifter, a former US assistant secretary of state, as noting that the use of a “Uniting for Peace” resolution over Namibian independence was a key step towards the eventual deligitimization of apartheid South Africa.

It underlines the fact that Israel is NOT an apartheid state! • en.wikipedia.org Of course, there are some essential differences between South Africa in the early 1980s and Israel today. Firstly, Israel is not an apartheid state—Israeli Arabs are even represented in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). Second, the list of nations willing to take serious steps against Israel is less imposing than those that ultimately sanctioned South Africa into submission.

Baker said that the “Uniting for Peace” measure is merely a recommendation. Nations aren’t legally bound by it, and Baker doesn’t think countries would boycott Israel, believing that aside from the situation being a diplomatic problem for Israel, there wouldn’t be any serious immediate practical consequences for them.

On the other hand, based on the international political climate, it appears that if Israel were hit with a “Uniting for Peace” measure recommending sanctions, some nations could follow suit, especially in the Third World. Some exports to Europe could be harmed by unofficial boycotts as anti-Israel organizations around the world would likely be emboldened. But most of the greatest dangers to Israel don’t come from there. Ironically, the Iranian example shows how hard it will be for anti-Israel groups to get serious global sanctions on Israel. Even with UN-imposed sanctions on Iran, nations have tried to skirt or even flaunt those, while Russia and China have tried to stonewall their passage in the Security Council. That hints that they may not be as keen to sanction Israel either.

Anti-Israel Manifesto Paris, March 28, 2009

Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu, January 2011 • Photo by Isranet

Most importantly, the US would back Israel. With President Barack Obama facing re-election in 2012, the last thing he needs is an unnecessary diplomatic mess with a key ally supported by millions of American voters from both US political parties. As for Europe, Israeli–European relations have had some occasional rough spots in the last couple years, but could things deteriorate this far? Brom said he thought some European nations such as Sweden might be open to enacting sanctions on Israel, but not the “big Western European states” such as Italy, UK, France, and Germany. The current European take on the Palestinian statehood issue reinforces that view.

The Jerusalem Post reported that in comments at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed opposition to UN recognition of Palestinian statehood. Merkel was quoted as saying, “Any kind of unilateral recognition does not promote this goal [of a two-state solution]. This will be our position in September.”

A European diplomat—in an email with Bridges for Peace in early April—said he thinks the EU is concerned about the aftermath of such unilateral, UN-endorsed Palestinian statehood, which could result in violence or other negative outcomes: “I believe that such concerns exist, which is why the EU does not support the recognition of a Palestinian state without negotiations.” Still, Brom said he thinks “a number of European states” would support the recognition resolution. While that remains to be seen, even Brom did not think major European nations would then enact sanctions on Israel.

That crosses yet another threat off the list, leaving Israel perhaps bruised diplomatically and more isolated from non-Western states, but ultimately not faced with any extreme concerns. Or are they?

A Third Intifada?

Second Intifada, 2000-2006 • en.wikipedia.org

Demonstrations in Tel Aviv outside the Egypt Embassy. • Photo by Isranet

There are consequential concerns that could arise, especially the prospect for some form of renewed violence. The theory is that if the UN raises Palestinian hopes for statehood and Israel is incapable of making such far-reaching concessions, the result could be increased Palestinian frustration and anger and new violence. The comparison would be to the situation in 2000, when the refusal of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Israel’s peace offer was followed by the Second Intifada (uprising). Brom acknowledged such concerns are possible, saying, “Failed expectations will bring about a political weakening of the Palestinian government, and a political weakening of the Palestinian government will be one of the elements that may enable an outbreak of new violence that will be aimed at Israel.”

Marcus Sheff—executive director of The Israel Project’s Israel office (a non-profit organization seeking to educate the press, officials and public) in an interview with Bridges for Peace—said that violence is always a possibility in the absence of peace. However, he also said the Arafat scenario in 2000 is different from today, noting Israel and the Palestinians were negotiating then, which is not occurring now. Arafat is also no longer in the picture, whom Sheff said “turned to violence” instead of accepting an agreement with Israel. Though Sheff could not speak for the plans of the current Palestinian leadership, it appears Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is more pragmatic than Arafat was, recognizing the harm done to the Palestinian image by terrorism.

There are other ways to threaten Israel without giving the orders, however. The New York Times reported that Hanna Amireh, who is on the 18-member ruling board of the Palestine Liberation Organization, suggested they could “re-examine” security cooperation with Israel if they went to the UN for statehood, which would at least complicate Israel’s counterterrorism efforts.

Another potential for violence is the massive protests that have erupted across the Arab world. The numbers potentially protesting Israel alone could prove problematic. There are well more than 1 million Palestinians in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and reportedly another 200,000-plus in Jerusalem. And Jerusalem has already seen its share of limited Arab riots in past years over different issues, not to mention what appears to be “lone wolf” terrorism where an individual or small group outside the major terror organizations undertakes an attack. The potential for mass protests, escalation, and even violence is always a danger.

That doesn’t make it inherently likely. In a March poll by Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, roughly two-thirds of Palestinians polled did not think demonstrations against Israel in the West Bank could bring about the end of the so-called “occupation” or stop settlement building.

While one can’t know what will happen, Sheff said in April that The Israel Project has highlighted polling data that shows that “there is no appetite among Palestinians to resort to violence.” That being said, the infamous Third Palestinian Intifada Facebook page, which was eventually removed by Facebook for calls to violence, did also at one point call for protests on Israel’s borders from people in nations neighboring Israel, according to Ynet. And that group had hundreds of thousands of supporters, although it is unclear how many were Palestinians.

Painful, Not Existential

As of press time, it does not appear that the Palestinians seeking statehood at the UN poses an immediate, significant threat to Israel. The biggest threat actually appears to be Palestinian violence afterward, but even that is not guaranteed. Diplomatically, the UN move could exacerbate Israel’s isolation from nations biased towards the Palestinians, perhaps including some sanctions. Israeli exports could suffer, and things can always escalate as well. Yet, as long as the US and Europe’s major states give even technical support to Israel, the Israelis can probably make it through the initial diplomatic aftermath, painful though it may be, without meeting all of the Palestinians’ dangerous demands. That international support for Israel is boosted by Israeli diplomacy and political activism on the part of Israel’s supporters, so just standing on the sidelines would not be wise.

Eventual international intervention to impose a Palestinian state on Israel is entirely possible in the future. But for now, it seems that if the Palestinians hope Israel wakes up in a cold sweat this fall due to their actions at the UN, it’s they who are dreaming.


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