July 04, 2011 Edition 19 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The PLO decision to ask for UN recognition
We are ready for freedom and independence  - Ghassan Khatib
Palestinians are not going to the UN prematurely.

Why we are going to the UN  - Yossi Alpher
This is the very attractive trade-off Abbas is offering Israel at the UN.

The consensus was positive  - an interview with Hanna Amireh
Turning to the UN puts the Palestinian cause in a new context.

More diplomatic theater?  - Gerald M. Steinberg
The two months until September provide plenty of time for multiple changes and extensive political maneuvering.

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We are ready for freedom and independence
 Ghassan Khatib
After its last meeting, the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization announced officially its intention to go to the United Nations to seek the help of the international community in ending Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, achieving freedom and independence and enjoying the legitimate rights of self-determination in accordance with international law and United Nations resolutions.

The PLO qualified its announcement with the statement that the priority of the Palestinian leadership remains achieving a bilateral agreement on two states with Israel and that, only if that fails by September will the leadership pursue the UN alternative. This has also been made clear through repeated statements by the Palestinian president. He has wasted no opportunity to emphasize that the leadership's priority remains the resumption of credible peace negotiations based on the clear terms of reference established at the Madrid conference, i.e., the principle of land for peace, in addition to the Arab Peace Initiative and the roadmap. However, the Palestinian leadership is not interested in talks for the sake of talking.

The main reason for the PLO decision is its conclusion that Israel has been at times avoiding and other times exploiting bilateral negotiations in order to consolidate its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and expand illegal settlements. The current Israeli government has not bothered to disavow this. For example, recently an aide to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that the idea of negotiations on the borders of 1967 with a land swap of equal proportions is "a joke" to the prime minister and that Israel has no land for swapping.

Therefore, the Palestinian intention to seek discussion on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by the international community at the UN is by no means a unilateral move, as Israel claims. Rather, it is a legitimate step to involve the international community after nearly 20 years of bilateral negotiations that have not brought us to meet the objective of peace based on a two-state solution. In addition, there is no contradiction between continuing efforts to resume meaningful peace negotiations, and international efforts that could help develop a frame of reference for future bilateral negotiations.

It was, therefore, very difficult for Palestinians to understand the United States Senate resolution that threatened to stop American financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if the PLO proceeds to the United Nations on this basis. Governments, organizations or individuals can be punished if they violate international law. It is ironic, however, to learn of threats to a people and its leadership for going to the UN to discuss peaceful and legal means of ending a military occupation that the world body considers belligerent and illegal.

Palestinians are not going to the UN prematurely. First, they fulfilled their obligations of building efficient and mature government institutions capable of being the institutions of an independent state, as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and UN agencies have attested. Second, Palestinians are going to the UN after two decades of bilateral negotiations and only after the end of the year that will be marked in September that was designated for the most recent round of bilateral talks called for by this US administration. In other words, the Palestinians are going to the UN to say to the international community: "We are ready for freedom and independence. Are you ready to help us achieve that?"

The international community has three options. Either it can help avoid that discussion by convincing Israel to stop expanding settlements and resume negotiations on two states on the basis of the 1967 borders. Or it can take up its responsibilities in the UN and vote for a resolution adopting the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 1967 that lives in peace with all its neighbors, including Israel. The alternative, of course, is to let the Palestinian leadership down, which will mean leaving it to the mercy of both the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian opposition--a path that will certainly push this conflict into a completely new phase.-Published 4/7/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Why we are going to the UN
 Yossi Alpher
The Palestine Liberation Organization has now officially decided to ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Leaving aside speculation as to whether this really will happen in September and what the consequences might be on the ground back home in Palestine and Israel, this is a good occasion to ask how we arrived at this juncture. The conventional wisdom that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's intransigent behavior has driven the Palestinians to adopt the international track is important, but hardly offers a complete explanation.

Here is an alternative and more balanced explanation. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' experience in direct final status negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the course of 2008 was an eye-opener for Abbas. He confronted the most far-reaching Israeli peace proposal yet offered concerning borders, refugees and holy places, yet rejected it. He knew that it was still far from his and his constituents' core demands on these issues. In the ensuing months, he encountered a far-less forthcoming Israeli leader, Netanyahu, and a promising new American president, Barack Obama, who offered a spectacular opening to the Arab world. Abbas also had to deal with his own Fateh rank-and-file, which reacted to these developments by rejecting negotiations altogether.

Whether or not Abbas seized upon Obama's demand for a settlement freeze knowing this could excuse him at the tactical level from negotiating with Netanyahu, we don't know. But it was clear from remarks he made in early 2009 that Abbas believed Obama would "deliver" the Israelis without the need for further Palestinian concessions. He misread both the commitment and the capacity of the American president.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu, having consciously surrounded himself with the kind of hawkish, ultra-nationalist coalition he is comfortable with, read Obama more skillfully. He proceeded to offer symbolic gestures to the Americans while avoiding serious negotiations. He built settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem to ensure Palestinian alienation, while encouraging security and economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority to project a degree of pragmatism in Israeli and American eyes. He capitalized on the Republican mid-term victory in late 2010 to shore up his US support base. And he exploited the Arab revolutionary wave that began half a year ago to justify sitting tight--his natural default option--and outlasting Abbas while the settlements grow.

Abbas turned to the United Nations for three reasons. First, the successful state-building enterprise in the West Bank spearheaded by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad suggested such a dramatic step.

Second, it was clear that negotiations, even if and when they happened, would go nowhere. Netanyahu is not Olmert, and even Olmert would never have given Abbas the concessions he needed to accept an agreement. As for Obama, he would never apply the overwhelming pressure required to get Netanyahu--or, following a peace process-induced coalition crisis in Israel, Netanyahu's successor--to make those concessions. In this sense, the UN track was Abbas' natural default option.

Thus it is Abbas' intransigence no less than Netanyahu's that has brought us to the UN. Yet here the two part company, for--reason number three--Abbas appears genuinely to want progress toward a viable two-state solution while Netanyahu does not. Therefore, Abbas is leading the Palestinians to the UN in the full knowledge that in the Security Council or General Assembly he will be making the substantive concessions that his principles and his constituents will not allow him to make in bilateral talks.

In negotiating with Israel, Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat have always insisted that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". An agreement on borders is meaningless until and unless Israel accepts the right of return and full Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif and the rest of the holy basin in Jerusalem. In contrast, at the UN Abbas is prepared to accept international determination of the 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem as the defining parameters of a Palestinian state, with the rest left to further negotiations. Even if Israel and Palestine subsequently fail to agree on the right of return and the Temple Mount--and Abbas knows this is more than likely given the huge gap between the two sides' core narratives regarding these unique issues--we nevertheless emerge from the UN with a two-state reality and a far more manageable conflict.

This, in my view, is the very attractive trade-off Abbas is offering Israel at the UN: a manageable two-state reality, albeit without an end-of-conflict agreement, in return for the 1967 lines and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Given the futility of negotiating under current circumstances, Israel and the US are foolish not to see the benefits of this trade-off. Rather than rejecting the Palestinian UN initiative, they should co-opt it and leverage it into a resolution that serves Israel's vital needs in a two-state solution as well as those of the Palestinians.-Published 4/7/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The consensus was positive
an interview with Hanna Amireh
bitterlemons: When the Palestine Liberation Organization decided last week to go ahead with its plan to seek statehood at the United Nations, was there great discussion about the issue?

Amireh: The meeting decided on a general direction of seeking recognition of the Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, first at the Security Council and also at the General Assembly. Of course, there was a discussion and different positions presented, but the general consensus was to support the move.

bitterlemons: Was there a discussion of the risks involved?

Amireh: Of course, there are the signs that the United States might wield its veto over any resolution proposed at the Security Council. Also, there is the possibility that [the US] might stop its financial support of the Palestinian Authority if the Security Council is asked for recognition, and pressure countries that support the Palestinian cause. Additionally, there is the danger that the US might stop its [economic] support for the United Nations as a result.

There are also risks from the Israeli side, that Israel might stop transferring Palestinian tax revenues to the Authority, or apply pressure in other ways by advancing settlements or canceling agreements. This is near-certain because the occupation is not going to give up its control easily.

But because there are no serious negotiations to end the occupation and this path seems entirely closed, we [decided we] need to turn to the international community.

bitterlemons: Are their plans to prepare for those risks?

Amireh: There are, of course, preparations being made and studies carried out regarding how to meet these risks.

bitterlemons: What is your personal opinion about this initiative?

Amireh: I believe that, because the negotiations have reached a cul-de-sac, and the US role has obviously failed to produce a solution to the Palestinian issue or place any pressure on Israel, the way to negotiations is closed and it is up to us to study other means. Turning to the UN puts the Palestinian cause in a new context, one that is conducive to the Palestinian people, and I think this is important.

bitterlemons: There have been reports that countries close to Palestinians, for example Jordan, are opposed to this move. Is this correct, and what does that mean for the initiative?

Amireh: Usually Jordan supports the Palestinian position. If there is some discussion between Jordan and the Palestinian leadership, that discussion is internal and not in the press.

bitterlemons: How do the recent protest movements, for example the flotilla that is trying now to sail to Gaza and the Nakba and Naksa demonstrations earlier this year and other future activities, affect the plans to head to the UN?

Amireh: The initiative [to go to the UN] is a popular act and shows support for Palestinian policies at the UN. We are asking civil society organizations and other groups, both Palestinian and international (especially in the Arab world and Europe), to support this move. The Arab-related decisions at the UN were a result of the quest for human rights and freedom, and this should also be applied to Palestinians.

bitterlemons: So you don't see these protests as a negative influence on the process?

Amireh: No, not at all. These demonstrations are political, popular movements that apply pressure in support of our cause.-Published 4/7/2011 ©

Hanna Amireh is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and sits on the Politburo of the Palestinian People's Party.

More diplomatic theater?
 Gerald M. Steinberg
Will the Palestine Liberation Organization's decision to seek unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood through a United Nations vote in September be a game-changer or another quickly forgotten piece of political theater? Will this move, led by Fateh leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, provide the foundation for the long-awaited two-state peace framework? Or will it trigger a political "tsunami", in the words of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, accompanied by mass Palestinian confrontations with Israeli security forces, further political isolation of Israel, and perhaps a wider regional conflict?

Given our long and bitter shared history, a positive outcome based on a UN General Assembly vote for Palestinian statehood seems unlikely, to understate the case. The two entirely opposing versions of history and historical justice--the core obstacles to peace--as well as differences over territory and security remain unbridgeable. But at the same time, the disaster scenario is also unlikely. Without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, where US President Barack Obama has pledged a veto, there is little legal or substantive significance to these events.

However, given Israel's already weakened international position, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel Foreign Ministry officials have expended considerable effort to persuade Europe and Latin America that the Palestinian campaign in the UN is counterproductive and destabilizing. Within the Israeli political framework, there are calls for annexing territory if a UN resolution seeks to impose a pre-1967 map based on 1949 ceasefire lines that do not constitute an international border and that Israelis see as not defendable.

Netanyahu can also point to a May 16 op-ed article in the New York Times in which Abbas highlighted Palestinian victimhood and emphasized confrontation. According to Abbas, "Palestine's admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice." Clearly, the expansion of Palestinian "lawfare" against Israel would not further peace and compromise.

As a result of these and other factors, there are indications that, in addition to the United States, some key European countries are concerned about this gambit. Some officials realize that the UN effort is yet another means for Abbas and the PLO to avoid direct negotiations with Israel along with the necessary compromises on refugee claims, Jerusalem and recognizing the Jewish right to national sovereignty.

There are also signs that some parts of Palestinian society--particularly on the West Bank--are less than enthusiastic about this scenario of symbolic independence and possible confrontation. In recent years, under the pragmatic leadership of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, their economic situation has improved dramatically, while an improved security framework has increased freedom of movement. Another period of instability, terrorism and the necessary Israeli responses to protect Israeli civilians would quickly destroy all of these gains.

One of the biggest obstacles to the declaration of Palestinian statehood, based on a UN General Assembly vote, is the problem of Gaza, which remains under the firm control of Hamas following the violent coup and expulsion of Fateh in 2007. In May, with the prodding of the post-Mubarak Egyptian leadership, the leaders of Fateh and Hamas announced a national-unity agreement, creating at least the facade of Palestinian Authority control over Gaza. Skeptics, including Palestinians, noted that, given weak Fateh leadership and the ruthless methods employed by Hamas, the latter could use the unity framework to restore its position and extend its rule from Gaza to the West Bank. But in the two months following the announcement, the unity agreement has not led to any substantive change or to agreement on policies or leadership. As a result, a General Assembly discussion on Palestinian independence would face the unresolved problem of Gaza.

At the regional level, the ongoing confrontations taking place under the banner of the "Arab spring" will also have important impacts on Palestinian strategy. The leaders of Egypt and Syria are busy trying to ensure their own survival. At the same time, another round of Israeli-Palestinian clashes could lead to pressures for intervention, adding another dimension to an already unstable framework. The Jordanian leadership has never been enthusiastic about a Palestinian state on its borders, with its potential spillover into Jordan's own Palestinian population.

Given all of these factors, the two months until September provide plenty of time for multiple changes and extensive political maneuvering. Despite the perception that under Obama the US is too weak and confused to lead, it is possible that sustained pressure from the White House combined with a congressional threat to end aid will convince Abbas to freeze the campaign for a United Nations vote. If this occurs, the focus will then shift to formulating the diplomatic move that will inevitably follow, and a new process will begin.-Published 4/7/2011 ©

Gerald M. Steinberg is the founder and president of NGO Monitor and professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.