Despite last-minute maneuvering on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, the tortuous Israel-Palestinian peace process is set to reach another critical juncture on Friday when the Palestinians submit a bid to seek full UN membership. Although polls indicate widespread support in the international community for a two-state solution and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, several recent developments suggest that the timing of the bid — which President Barack Obama has said the United States will block at the Security Council — could scarcely be worse from the standpoint of almost every stakeholder, including the Palestinians themselves.
Perhaps the most important such development concerns the political dispensation within the Palestinian territories. Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip — secured by popular mandate through the ballot box — has undermined the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mamoud Abbas. In fact, the UN bid seems at least partly motivated by Abbas’ attempts to consolidate his domestic constituency. And yet, rather ironically, the Palestinian Authority owes its survival in the West Bank in large part to Israel’s continuing military presence there, which acts as a bulwark against Hamas. Paradoxically, the push for UN recognition that might strengthen Abbas’ position in the short run also threatens this temporary and tenuous alliance of convenience with Israel.
A second and more recent development is the Arab Spring, which has already resulted in the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and political upheaval in Syria and Jordan. Israelis are deeply worried about populist regimes emerging in these states, which might well be inclined to greater hostility toward Israel. Their fears are not entirely unfounded : relations between Israel and Egypt — which for three decades had remained a powerful stabilizing factor in the region — are now on a downward trajectory, especially following the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo two weeks ago. Israel will only be in a position to accept Palestinian independence if it feels secure ; the Arab Spring has had the opposite effect.
Third, the United States’ status as an honest broker is in jeopardy, following the Obama administration’s poorly-handled mediation of the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The United States’ initially strong position on a settlement building freeze angered not just Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but also painted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas into a corner. In Abbas’ words, “We both went up the tree. After that, [Obama] came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.” It’s a far cry from the years when former U.S. President Bill Clinton was seen as an even-handed mediator between then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat ; today, both sides feel that Washington has let them down.
The fourth development involves other external actors. The Quartet — consisting of the United Nations, European Union, United States, and Russia, but represented by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair — has proven largely ineffective as a mediating presence. Despite contributing almost half of all aid to the Palestinian Authority, Europe appears divided on what approach to take, making it harder to forge a common transatlantic policy. Meanwhile, Israel’s relations with other key players in its neighborhood — notably Turkey — have nose-dived, meaning the regional political climate is far from conducive to normalization.
An overarching problem, though, is one of priorities. A two-state solution requires a government in the Palestinian territories that is unified, stable, popularly-mandated, and status quo-oriented, but in contrast to the heady optimism of the days preceding the Second Intifada, the Palestinian Authority today checks only the status quo box. Prematurely seeking international legitimacy at the United Nations is sure to prevent progress towards a viable end state, while the disappointment resulting from a blocked UN bid may yet stoke violence.
The handling of the issue by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been remarkably clumsy. Neither side appears to have made adequate preparations for a soft landing after the vote. At the same time, various parties on both sides appear to be exaggerating the importance of this largely symbolic gesture for their own purposes. Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned of unspecified “harsh and grave” consequences, while other Israeli leaders have suggested abandoning the moribund Oslo peace process or annexing parts of the West Bank. Meanwhile, Abbas and many supporters of the Palestinian cause have framed the vote as the ultimate litmus test for the acceptance of Palestinian statehood. The roles, it appears, have reversed. Abbas has climbed down the tree and removed the ladder. And, barring a last-minute face-saving gesture, it is the United States that might have to jump.