As Israeli-Palestinian negotiations lurch from crisis to crisis, Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders have been suggesting they may go to the United Nations to seek resolutions confirming the illegality of Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Territories and recognizing a reality of Palestinian statehood.
With Washington now offering Israel unprecedented blandishments to observe a partial and temporary suspension of settlement activity rather than the comprehensive one set forth as early as the 2003 “road map,” and which senior Palestinians have characterized as more dangerous than continued settlement activity, both propositions are worth serious examination, not least because they would challenge the existing framework of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under American supervision. Instead of an interminable process which has effectively transformed the West Bank and Gaza Strip from occupied into disputed territories, and in which Israeli claims are considered as at least as valid as Palestinian rights, the alternatives being discussed could lay the foundation for a genuinely international effort whose point of departure is the implementation of decolonization on the basis of relevant provisions of international law and UN resolutions.
Enticing as the prospect may be, Palestinian negotiators are unfortunately not serious about a change of course. The leadership in Ramallah is almost wholly dependent upon American, European and Arab political and financial support, as well as security and economic cooperation with Israel. The fundamental reality is it neither has nor wants strategic or even tactical alternatives to US-sponsored diplomacy.
Unprepared to reconsider their foreign alliances, unwilling to reconcile and mobilize the required domestic constituencies, and by this point probably unable to do either, negotiators have instead engaged in serial climbdowns resulting in increasingly disadvantageous Palestinian terms for further negotiations.
The PA’s reluctance to exercise genuine leverage — for example, shelving the 2009 Goldstone Report and the 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on the illegality of Israel’s separation wall rather than playing them for all they are worth — means that the talk about Palestinian alternatives is just that: Verbal demarches demanding that Barack Obama put his money where his mouth is. Yet if Obama does, the results are likely to constitute an even greater assault on Palestinian rights. The type of state that is likely to emerge — shorn of most attributes of sovereignty and perhaps only provisional in nature — will serve as an instrument to perpetuate rather than replace Israeli rule. It is this, rather than the suspension of direct talks, that forms the real Palestinian crisis.
Given this desultory state of affairs, the most pressing need is a reconfiguration of the Palestinian political system — preferably through national reconciliation — in a way that produces a representative leadership committed to a serious national program. Absent such developments, Palestinians have little hope of effectively challenging Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s increasingly predatory policies designed to be rid of them for once and all. For all the talk of Israel as the reincarnation of apartheid South Africa, the stark reality is that Palestine and its people’s right to self-determination are on the verge of going the way of Western Sahara — swallowed whole by a more powerful neighbor despite a slew of rulings in its favor.
If Palestinians do succeed in putting their house in order — and in this respect their various leaders form a formidable obstacle — one of their first measures should be to withdraw from the current diplomatic framework. They should then announce that — as has been the case with decolonization from Algeria to Zimbabwe — they would agree to negotiate only the mechanisms of a permanent end to the Israeli occupation and the attendant practical details. There would, in other words, be no further discussion of permanent status issues unless and until Israel concedes these have already been resolved by several truckloads of UN resolutions.
Given current conditions, such an alternative strategy is unlikely to pay quick dividends. Yet when it does, it will have transformed the occupation into an intolerable burden rather than painless benefit for Israel.
Here, going to the Security Council to reconfirm the illegality of settlement in and annexation of occupied territory could prove pivotal. It would be extremely difficult for the US to veto, and virtually impossible for European governments to ignore. Such a resolution could help generate a new wave of demands for action in European parliaments, particularly if paired with a Palestinian campaign of mass protests and diplomatic activity to translate the resolution, the ICJ opinion on the West Bank Wall and Goldstone Report into practical consequences.
In due course, the numerous benefits Israel has derived from accelerated settlement activity under the cover of diplomacy — such as the European Union Association Agreement and more recently membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — would begin to be reversed by leaders no longer as comfortable extending de facto recognition to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Rather, they would find it more prudent to extract an increasingly heavy price from Israel in the currency of real and palpable consequences.