Palestinian statehood bid: Miracle, muddle or mess?
There appear to be three possible outcomes to the Palestinian plan on Friday to seek full UN membership: a miracle, a muddle, and a mess.
The miracle would be if diplomats dream up a document that may persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to talk peace after nearly a year of impasse and acrimony.
The muddle would be if the Palestinian letter requesting full membership simply sits in the UN Security Council’s inbox, ushering in a period of limbo while diplomats try to coax the parties into negotiations.
The mess would occur if violence erupts after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hands over the letter, throwing the diplomatic efforts to the winds.
Below is a description of these scenarios and how they may play out for the Palestinians, Israel and the United States.
The Palestinians have decided to ask for full membership in the United Nations, arguing that nearly two decades of peace negotiations with Israel have not brought them a state.
Israel and the United States oppose this, saying the only way to create a state is through negotiations.
While the request for full membership faces a certain US veto in the UN Security Council, the Palestinians could also ask the UN General Assembly to upgrade them from an “entity” to a “non-member state.”
That status, diplomats say, would let them take Israel to the International Criminal Court, a threat that may increase Palestinian leverage over Israel in any peace negotiations.
The main players, including Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have gathered at the United Nations this week, providing the mise-en-scène<, or arrangement of the actors, for Friday's climax when Abbas submits his letter and speaks at the UN General Assembly.
While they once hoped to keep the Palestinians from going to the United Nations, US diplomats have accepted that they cannot stop Abbas from handing his letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.
The technique to prevent the Palestinians UN push was to be a statement crafted by the so-called Quartet—the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States—that aimed to draw the two sides back into peace talks.
It became clear in the last week that the Palestinians were not likely to be dissuaded. So diplomats hope the statement—which would lay out guidelines for negotiations—might bring the two sides back into talks after Abbas hands in the letter.
The miracle would be if the Quartet diplomats can actually reach agreement on such a statement, which they have spent months negotiating.
After four hours of talks on Thursday afternoon, a senior US official said the Quartet was working “constructively” and would hold more talks.
Any statement would have to at least implicitly address such nettlesome issues as the possible borders of a Palestinian state and Israel’s insistence it be recognised as a Jewish state—language that the Palestinians believe undercuts their right of return to homes from which they fled or were forced that are now in Israel.
Even if the Quartet diplomats can agree on the statement among themselves, it is unclear whether Israel and the Palestinians will then agree to get back into negotiations.
If the Quartet cannot issue a statement on Friday, the result will be a muddle, where events may move on multiple tracks.
The Quartet will probably keep trying for a statement but, if they fail while the world’s leaders are in New York at the UN General Assembly, it may be hard to pull it off later.
The Palestinian request for full UN membership would remain before the Security Council where it could be brought up for a vote that Washington ardently hopes to avoid.
Vetoing the request will not win Washington any friends in the Arab world, where it may be seen as running counter to the spirit of the Arab Spring in which popular revolts toppled long-time autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya this year.
It is also possible that the Palestinians could draft a resolution for the General Assembly, where a majority vote could give them status as a non-member state.
This is likely to generate another set of negotiations over both the language of such a General Assembly resolution as well as the votes for or against it.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert argued on Thursday that the mess would occur if violence erupts.
“In the worst case scenario, chaos and violence could erupt, making the possibility of an agreement even more distant, if not impossible,” Olmert wrote in an opinion piece published in the New York Times.
Analysts fear violence could erupt, by accident or design, throwing the diplomatic efforts into disarray.
The Palestinian Authority leadership, which exerts limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has made clear it does not want to see this happen.
Indeed, the decision to go to the United Nations appears a deliberate effort to gain leverage over Israel—notably with the threat of legal action at the International Criminal Court—without resorting to violence.
Palestinian leaders have promised statehood demonstrations will be peaceful and, so far, this has been borne out.
Flag-waving Palestinians filled the squares of major West Bank cities on Wednesday to rally behind Abbas’s effort to win UN membership. A large mockup of a blue chair, symbolising a seat at the United Nations, and giant Palestinian flags hanging from buildings provided a backdrop for a rally in Ramallah, where overflow crowds of thousands packed two squares.
The main demonstrations were far from Israeli military checkpoints around Palestinian cities—a conscious decision to minimise the chances of stone-throwing or confrontations—and there were no reports of any violence on Wednesday.