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After September comes October

Efraim Inbar

Earlier this year, Chairman Mahmoud Abbas made the decision to cut off the Palestine Liberation Organization's negotiations with Israel and go to the United Nations in September to bid for state recognition. There, an American veto at the Security Council is expected, while at the General Assembly a large majority of members are likely to endorse a motion recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Such a resolution is not binding in accordance with international law, but its prospects have elicited negative reactions from Israel, the United States and part of the international community that deplore the Palestinian unilateral approach and fear the consequences of a UN resolution. Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, even warned of an impending "diplomatic tsunami".

Articles in this edition
Why we are closing - Yossi Alpher
The arc of the pendulum - Ghassan Khatib
Those fears are greatly exaggerated. First, the UN lacks legitimacy. It is a morally bankrupt institution, giving an equal voice to the worst aggressors and human rights offenders on the globe. It is unclear how a resolution at the UN, a powerless institution, could possibly make a dent in a century-old ethnic conflict in the Holy Land. What can it do to implement the General Assembly recommendations? The only consequence is negative, reinforcing Palestinian intransigence.

Unfortunately, General Assembly resolutions cannot fix a Palestinian national movement that is hopelessly fractured and dysfunctional. The UN cannot turn the Palestinian factions into one political entity. Can the UN bring Gaza and the West Bank together to present reasonable interlocutors for Israeli negotiators? Can the UN mellow Hamas' lust to kill Jews and to eradicate Israel? Can it eradicate the "shaheed" death culture?

Is the UN in a position to infuse pragmatism into Palestinian political culture? The Palestinians still insist on the invented "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, which most of the world sees as an unrealistic demand and an obstacle to peace. The Palestinians are trying to rewrite the past by denying Jewish history in Jerusalem. They are still not ready to concede that they lost the struggle over Jerusalem, a united capital city that the Jews will adamantly defend. Israel is unquestionably stronger and time is on its side. Nevertheless, the Palestinians remain "bad losers", not willing to make a pragmatic deal in order to achieve statehood.

The UN cannot deliver a state. It can change neither the facts on the ground nor Palestinian behavior. The Palestinians had two historic opportunities to build a state, in 1948 and in 1993, but both were squandered by terrible leadership. Recently, we have observed somewhat more successful efforts at state-building by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. While he is arguably the best thing that has happened to the Palestinians in their short history, his popularity among his people is quite low, indicating the dysfunctional character of Palestinian politics. The image of a booming Ramallah, the fruit of Fayyad's efforts, is somewhat misleading.

Can the PA survive without begging for international support every few months? Can it survive cutting down its bloated and corrupt bureaucracy to enable it to build a healthy economy? The much lauded US-trained Palestinian troops have yet to meet the real test in the main mission of state-building: monopoly over the use of force. Illegal weapons abound, posing an extraordinary domestic security challenge for a nascent state. Can these troops be trusted to fight a serious challenge from Hamas, or will we see them collapse just as an earlier version of US-trained Palestinian troops did in Gaza?

Actually, it is regular Israeli military incursions against the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank that keep the PA safe. Were Israel to take a decision to deny access to its labor market and cease money transfers and many services, the result could be lethal.

The PLO leadership realizes that its options against Israel are limited and that another terrorist campaign would turn out to be extremely destructive to the Palestinians. The power differential between a democratic, prosperous and militarily strong Israel and corrupt, autocratic and fragmented Palestinian entities is only growing. Israel managed to win the first two intifadas and can do so again. Nowadays, it is preparing for Palestinian non-violent actions that could affect its image abroad and at home. Adequate planning and training might minimize the inevitable damage resulting from clashes between soldiers and civilians.

The main challenge to Israel is, however, not on the diplomatic front where it is doing better than its critics think. The Arab world, in the throes of a socio-political crisis, is hardly able to do anything but pay lip-service in support of a Palestinian state. Israel's diplomats managed to prevent an international flotilla from breaking the Gaza naval siege. Israel has also been successful in procuring international understanding for its demand to be recognized by the Palestinians as a Jewish state. Furthermore, Washington is solidly behind Jerusalem on most issues, while the strategic relationship is hardly affected by differences on peace negotiations.

What is at stake, however, is Israel's cohesion. A united Israel behind a government perceived as doing enough for securing peace can sustain protracted conflict. Netanyahu's stable government meets these requirements. A huge number of Israelis strongly believe that the Palestinians, at this stage, are not ready to make the necessary concessions for peace. A UN resolution is unlikely to change public opinion in Israel, which regards this body as incompetent and hostile. Finally, the upheaval in the Arab world indicates that there is greater need for caution and for insistence on defensible borders.

Unless we see the emergence of a more pragmatic Palestinian leadership, the conflict will continue. In all probability, September 2011 will be followed by October and many more months without a Palestinian state in the offing.-Published 22/8/2011 © bitterlemons.org

Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
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