Why Confrontation Now at the UN?

By UUA International Resources

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), the UUA's strategic partner on Israel/Palestine issues, is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations (including the UUA) and organizations that helps church organizations, leaders and individuals effectively advocate for justice and peace for all peoples in the Middle East.  by Warren Clark, Executive Director of CMEP The United States, Israel, and Palestinians are preparing for a full-scale diplomatic crisis this month at the United Nations over UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Why is this issue suddenly so important? What are the dangers and opportunities that arise? Over the summer U.S. and Israeli diplomats worked feverishly to head off Palestinian plans to seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Palestinian leadership has explicitly stated that they will take their cause to the world body. Their bid might come as an application for full UN membership – a step that would require UN Security Council approval, or it might come in the form of a request for upgraded status at the UN – a change from the PLO’s current status as a non-state entity observer to recognition of Palestine as a non-member state observer, like the Vatican. Such a move would recognize that Palestine is in some sense a “state,” even if not a UN member. The official U.S. view is that international recognition of a Palestinian state and UN membership can only follow a negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The question now is the effect any such UN recognition will have on the relative political power of each side in negotiations for a peace agreement. One concern raised by both U.S. and Israeli analysts is that UN recognition of a Palestinian “state” could be interpreted to mean that a UN member state – Israel – is occupying another state – Palestine—and could open up the possibility of various UN sanctions directed against Israel. It could also potentially give a Palestinian state the legal standing to bring cases before UN bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. For years, Israel has dominated negotiations between the two parties. It enjoys overwhelming military power, an advanced economy, and strong U.S. and international political backing. This asymmetry in power at the negotiating table has made reaching an agreement even harder. Negotiations since the Oslo Accords in 1993 have failed to reach terms acceptable to the politically weaker Palestinians. Failures in the peace process led to violent uprisings and terrorism, reciprocal acts of violence, and strong Israeli security measures against Palestinians. Palestinian power at the negotiating table has also suffered from a lack of effective internal governance and continuing political division. While the new Palestinian leadership rejected violence and embraced U.S. and Israeli demands for security and economic cooperation, many Palestinians now feel they are worse off today than they were twenty years ago. The continuing policies of occupation and growing Israeli settlements negatively impact Palestinian lives, while the significant security improvements and decline in violence have left many in Israel with little motivation to change the status quo through the creation a viable Palestinian state. The picture for Israel has changed in recent years. Israeli military interventions in Lebanon and Gaza, the deadly confrontation with the Turkish flotilla last May, and the continuing blockade of Gaza were strongly criticized by some European states for their disproportionate use of force and impact upon civilian populations. During the 2008-2009 Israeli military incursion into Gaza, the ratio of persons killed on each side was 100 to 1 (1,400 Palestinians to 14 Israelis). During its first two years in the White House, the Obama Administration’s strenuous but unsuccessful efforts to get Israel to suspend construction in the Palestinian territories in order restart direct negotiations focused attention on the contradiction between Israel’s continued settlement expansion and its agreed policy goal of creating a Palestinian state. This year, European and other leaders, including former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, expressed increasing impatience with Israel’s lack of proposals on final status issues and continued building in West Bank settlements. In addition, Israel is experiencing increased tensions with its regional neighbors. The Arab Spring led to a government in Egypt less accommodating toward Israel, and the 2010 flotilla incident and aftermath has severely damaged Israel’s relations with Turkey. In this new context, Israel feels more isolated internationally and fears of a world-wide campaign to “de-legitimize” Israel have gained traction with the public. The New York Times, among others, has raised questions as to whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sincere about wanting an agreement to create a Palestinian state. As the leader of Likud, his party’s political platform still opposes a two-state solution. He says he is ready to negotiate without preconditions with Palestinians at any time, but he has not endorsed the proposals made in 2008 to Palestinians by his predecessor Ehud Olmert nor responded to the detailed Palestinian positions on final status issues – borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem. Meanwhile settlement construction has continued. Since coming to power in March 2009, Netanyahu also has offered a series of reasons for delaying negotiations including the threat from Iran, Palestinian incitement to violence, and the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas signed in May. The Prime Minister now has called on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. The PLO formally recognized Israel and its right to exist over 20 years ago. This new demand raises far-reaching questions that will need to be addressed in the context of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the civil and human rights of the 20% of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. Palestinians are expected to soon outnumber Jews in the combined area of Israel, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. In light of this demographic reality, only the creation of a Palestinian state can assure preservation of a democratic Jewish-majority state. On the Palestinian side, the government of President Mahmoud Abbas has staked its political life on a policy of cooperation with Israel and the United States as the means of reaching its goal of an agreement to end the occupation and create a Palestinian state. The improved security conditions in the West Bank, stemming from close security cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces, have led to easing of Israeli restrictions and increased economic activity in the West Bank. Since 2009 the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Prime Minister Fayyad has made strides with U.S. and other foreign assistance to improve governance with the aim of preparing for the creation a viable Palestinian state. This year, the new forces of public opinion expressed in the Arab Spring led Palestinians to a reconciliation agreement between the dominant secular Fatah political faction that controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the dissident Islamic Hamas faction that controls Gaza. While the reconciliation between the bitter opponents is superficial at best and its implementation has been put on hold, both factions support a Palestinian request for UN recognition. One reason that the Palestinian application for recognition at the UN is taking place now is the iron law of Middle East politics: when there is no progress toward an agreement, something else – however untoward – will happen. In the past, the Palestinian Authority was responsive to urgent U.S. requests not pursue international actions that were strongly opposed by Israel. Early last year the PA ageed to a U.S. request to withdraw a resolution on the Goldstone Report in the UN Human Rights Commission that questioned Israel’s human rights record during the Gaza war. Palestinian leaders hoped that political cooperation with the United States --in the face of strong domestic Palestinian political opposition – could still lead to progress toward agreement. That is no longer the case. After witnessing the lack of results from U.S. efforts to achieve suspension of settlement construction, the U.S. veto in February of a Security Council resolution declaring that Israeli settlements are “illegal,” and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s negative reaction to President Obama’s speech in May calling for negotiations based in the 1967 lines with adjustments, the current Palestinian leadership seems to see provoking a confrontation at the UN as the only way to remain in power and maintain hope of progress toward an agreement. The end of that hope could mean the political end of the moderate Palestinian leadership now running the PA -- and a vindication of extremists such as Hamas that does not recognize Israel's right to exist and holds that only confrontation and violence will achieve Palestinian self-determination. The Palestinian efforts at the UN carry severe risks as well. Secretary Clinton has given Palestinians dire warnings of what will happen if they go ahead in seeking recognition at the UN. U.S. envoys have issued ultimatums but offered no alternatives, according to Palestinians. Powerful members of the U.S. Congress are threatening to cut off millions of dollars in U.S. economic assistance and security training to the PA and even to cut off U.S. support of the UN if Palestinians are successful. U.S. officials have made clear their intention to veto any Palestinian membership application in the UN Security Council. Israeli officials fear that there could be widespread Palestinian violence in the West Bank in the wake of a U.S. veto. Settlers in the West Bank reportedly are arming for confrontations. Some Israeli officials have threatened to abrogate existing agreements with the PA if it goes ahead in the UN, including cutting off payment to the PA for Palestinian customs that Israel collects, and effectively bankrupting the PA government. The worst case scenario therefore is that this crisis could led to an outbreak of violence, collapse of the Palestinian government and the end of the current moderate Palestinian political leadership. Such dramatic changes would mean the end of the two-state solution and indefinite Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, resulting in the end of the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish-majority state. Palestinians also could be left with a balkanized Palestinian “state” without defined borders, without sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, and without East Jerusalem as their capital. On the other hand, the situation is not necessarily hopeless. The potential dire consequences of a crisis at the UN might still spark reevaluation of the need to move toward the two-state solution. It hopefully will become clear that the benefits of moving toward an agreement for the creation of a Palestinian state far outweigh the costs of holding on to the status quo. Palestinian business leader Zahi Khoury recently pointed out that the West Bank represents a captive market of about $4 billion annually for Israel. It clearly is not in U.S. or Israel’s interests to bankrupt the PA, nor would Israel wish to have a failed state on its border that it might have to help administer. There will be opportunities for diplomatic delays beyond September, and there may well be more diplomatic bargaining over the recognition issue at the UN this fall and beyond.

What You Can Do: Public opinion matters greatly in shaping official U.S. responses to this crisis. Let your voice be heard. You can:
  • Urge your elected representatives to support balanced efforts to bring about a sustainable agreement for peace and to do no harm to U.S. and Israeli interests and hope for peace by cutting off US assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Let your representative know you support continued U.S. aid to the Palestinians. Click here to take action now!
  • Spread the word in your church and your community about CMEP and the need for the U.S. to help bring Israel and the Palestinians together to end this conflict. For more information in community organizing, see: www.cmep.org
  • Follow us on Facebook. Invite your friends to "like" CMEP's fan page. Click here to visit us on Facebook.
  • Support Churches for Middle East Peace. Help us to educate and mobilize public opinion in the U.S. through the Churches by giving your support to CMEP. Click here to donate now.

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