Friday, September 16, 2011

International Efforts to Avoid the Palestinian UN Bid Will Inevitably Fail Because Western Policy is So Bad

 This article was published in "Bitter Lemons" and is presented here with a number of updates and additions.

By Barry Rubin

I have seen about 20 articles today about why the UN bid isn't in the PA's interest and why they should stop. But none of these articles really point out that the opposite is true: the PA has pretty much nothing to lose.

Will the United States cut off all aid? Of course not. Will it make them more unpopular at home? No.  If it kills talks with Israel? That's good. They don't need or want them. If it delays the creation of a real state? Since the PA can't and won't negotiate for a compromise agreement it doesn't matter. The PA will get a huge majority in the General Assembly and that will seem a diplomatic victory. If the  United States  vetos, the PA has an excuse for not succeeding.

If you don't confront the reality of why a country or group act the way it does--and why a weak Western policy makes radical behavior possible--any discussion of the issue is a waste of time.

Here is the problem with "international efforts to avoid the Palestinian UN bid." To say this is not an attempt to avoid giving some constructive advice. Rather, giving constructive advice requires using this as a starting point and explaining why this is true.

First, it’s too late. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been talking repeatedly about this gambit for almost a year. Why is it only now, when it is so thoroughly committed to this effort, is the U.S. government staging a campaign against unilateral independence? The failure to start earlier has destroyed any attempt to avoid this disastrous outcome.

Second, the U.S. government did virtually nothing to mobilize other countries to oppose this campaign. What should have happened is that starting in late 2010, the White House should have begun lining up votes. American ambassadors should have been given high-priority instructions to talk with the leaders of the countries to which they were accredited and put together a coalition to avoid the coming crisis. It failed to do so.

Third, the U.S. government has never used real leverage to persuade the PA to relent or to convince other countries to oppose the UN General Assembly backing for a unilateral independence bid. No threats have been made; no benefits offered; no power applied.

Clearly, this is not how international affairs should be conducted. Given neither incentive nor warning, dozens of countries have no compelling reason to vote “no.” On the contrary, they know they are getting a free ride. They can vote “yes” or at most abstain knowing they are protected from their irresponsible behavior by a U.S. veto of the proposal in the Security Council. The U.S. government will take the heat while the others can play progressive, humanitarian friends of the Arab world and Muslims.

As for the PA, without some threat of an aid cut-off, an end or sharp reduction in U.S. diplomatic support, or other price, why should it drop a high-publicity, no-cost campaign that—as we will see in a moment—offers so many political benefits.

Equally debilitating is the failure of the counter-campaign to use the most serious and important arguments—that are the only ones that might be effective. The Palestinian strategy breaks every commitment made to Israel and internationally guaranteed since 1993. These are the very commitments on which the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself is based.

The PA simply abandons the principle that any solution will be on the basis of mutual negotiations. It does so after the PA rejected the U.S.-proposed solution of 2000 and it also rejects a negotiated solution following two years of the PA’s rejection of negotiations. The U.S. refusal to make this argument parallels the Obama Administration’s refusal to criticize or use leverage against the PA, thus guaranteeing its own failure.

Equally, there is no use of the argument about the future implications of this gambit. After all, if the PA has an internationally recognized state it has no incentive to negotiate or compromise in future. Equally, Israel’s main asset—the ability to trade territory in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state—is removed with no concomitant gain. What then is Israel’s incentive to make more concessions and take more risks?

Thus, the unilateral independence campaign and its at least partial success—certainly from a public relations’ perspective—kills the peace process for many years to come. Yet this fact has not energized the campaign, galvanized the U.S. government into strong action, or persuaded other countries to oppose the proposal.

As if all this weren’t enough, the prize is being given to the PA at a time when it is in partnership (albeit a very conflictual one) with Hamas, a group that opposes any compromise, peaceful resolution, existence of Israel, U.S. interests, and much more. The U.S government has not even pointed out that the government to be recognized includes a major pro-genocide, terrorist, revolutionary Islamist, antisemitic, and bitterly anti-Western component.

Since the PA has nothing to lose internationally, it has no incentive to drop the campaign. Since it can make real gains by putting on this effort, even if the United States ultimately vetoes the demand,  once again it has no reason to change course.

Turning to the internal Palestinian situation, the current leadership cannot—due to public opinion, Hamas, and militant elements in the PA plus Fatah hierarchies—make peace or even negotiate seriously.

Equally, the leadership does not want to make peace with Israel because most of them are hardliners or at least relatively so, as in the refusal of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to accept Israel as a Jewish state, end the conflict even in exchange for a Palestinian state, and agree to resettle Palestinian refugees in Palestine. The movement’s goal remains to wipe Israel off the map. Getting a state without commitment, concession, or compromise furthers that goal.

Moreover, this initiative coincides perfectly with shorter-term PA leadership goals. It doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel, doesn’t want to reach a compromise solution, and thus wasting the entire year of 2011 on this bid gives it an ideal strategy to mobilize internal support, blame Israel, and get everything it wants for nothing in return. How can any non-punishing effort to persuade them to change ever possibly succeed?

PS: Negotiation EU style.

Europe's former negotiator Javier Solana is generously given space in the New York Times (funny, they don't seem to have any space for an op-ed opposing Palestinian unilateral independence) which gives ten reasons why Europe should vote for the plan and none why it should vote against. Guess he couldn't find any.

One former EU president has called for supporting unilateral independence because Israel continued to build settlements. This is an example of the ridiculous situation Israel faces because key leaders don't actually pay attention to facts. Israel was allowed to build on existing settlements in the 1993 agreement and the government has dismantled a lot of settlements and built no new ones.

Die Welt in Germany gets it right, though it also has a factual mistake, mentioning Israeli construction in Jerusalem as if it is some new feature rather than something going on for two decades. Moreover, the only way the Palestinians can stop settlement construction or even existence is by making peace with Israel, not refusing to do so.

At any rate, the newspaper explains:

"This crisis has shown which friends one can really count on. As it turns out, there are not many....The Palestinians are taking the easy route in the sympathetic UN General Assembly, rather than making the painful compromises that are necessary for a peaceful solution....It was the Palestinian leadership that in 2000, during the negotiations at Camp David under the direction of Bill Clinton, refused a compromise solution. Shortly thereafter, Yasser Arafat let loose his dogs of hell and destroyed the peace camp in Israel with the intifada. Now the Palestinians are again trying to take a short cut to their own state rather than making necessary compromises. Germany should not support this blatant violation of the Oslo Accords."

How rare is this level of understanding.

Meanwhile, the official EU position is that if the Palestinians drop their bid, the EU will support raising them one level at the UN with the prospect of more promotions in future. In exchange the Palestinians do nothing to deserve such a promotion. Moreover, the PA knows that hardly any EU country will vote against them. So what's their incentive? To examine this kind of bargaining is to show how ridiculous it is.

            Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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