"The Challenges Presented by the Palestinian Campaign for United Nations Recognition"

Jason Isaacson



JUNE 21, 2011

Mr. Belder, thank you for providing me the opportunity to address Members and staff of the European Parliament on current issues in the effort to advance Israeli-Palestinian and a broader Arab-Israeli peace.

The American Jewish Committee, where I have served for the last two decades as Director of Government and International Affairs, has been involved for many years in the quest for Middle East peace – a peace that will assure Israel’s security and well-being, offer the Palestinians a viable and democratic state, normalize relations between Israel and all its neighbors, and finally end an historic conflict.

Knowing and applauding the European Union’s commitment to the earliest possible achievement of these same objectives, I come to you today to appeal to European states – through this august body – to mount the most vigorous defense of the principle that Israeli-Palestinian peace must, and can only, be accomplished at the bargaining table, and the most vigorous defense of the Quartet principles as a necessary basis for Palestinian engagement in such negotiations.

Complementing today’s discussion with you, AJC representatives have been consulting extensively in recent weeks with diplomats and senior officials from across Europe and other regions, in particular Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa – urging that a clear message be sent to the Palestinian leadership: We, supporters of a two-state solution, ask you to return to negotiations, as difficult as they are; you – and your neighbors, and all of us – have no time to waste.

There simply is no other practical path, no acceptable shortcut to negotiations. It is only at the bargaining table that Israel and the future state of Palestine will establish secure borders; swap land necessary to accommodate the demographic and transportation and security realities of both entities; assure the protection of religious sites; safeguard the water resources and environment necessary to sustain both populations; institute provisions for trade and the exchange of labor; manage air and sea lanes – in short, create a viable, democratic, non-militarized, secure Palestinian state that is a peaceful neighbor to democratic Israel, and a contributor to peace across the region.

I know that the negotiating path is full of obstacles, that it is frustrating, that its failure to yield results may lead people of good will to seek alternative means of securing statehood for the Palestinians.

One such alternative, of course, is a focus of urgent attention by me and my AJC colleagues, including the Brussels-based AJC Transatlantic Institute, whose staff I have the privilege of accompanying here today. And it is the focus of today’s discussion. That alternative is the campaign by Palestinian leadership to seek recognition in the United Nations this fall of a unilaterally declared state.

UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is a worthy goal – but to pursue it now, before viable borders and other essential elements of statehood have been defined through negotiated compromises with Israel, is political theater, not statecraft. And it is dangerous.

The day after a General Assembly vote – a vote that will necessarily lack the force of Security Council action, because at least one Permanent Member has made clear its opposition:

  • the situation on the ground will not have changed;
  • elevated public expectations of the benefits of national status will be unrealized;
  • vital security cooperation with Israel will be jeopardized – as will other forms of cooperation essential to the welfare of the Palestinian people;
  • the economic resurgence of the West Bank, a promising but unfinished project achieved under the administration of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and with strong European support, will be hobbled by new uncertainties;
  • and, having broken its solemn agreement under Oslo to abjure such unilateral steps, the Palestinian Authority will have undermined confidence that an eventual negotiation can be concluded and implemented. The road back to negotiations – the only road to peace – may be closed for years to come, losing time neither party can afford.
Pushed to the precipice of hollow statehood, indeed of a setback to real statehood, by feckless leadership and an ill-considered strategy, Palestinians may react with violence – their aspirations, heightened by President Abbas and by the Arab League, unfulfilled; their day-to-day experience, in the aftermath of a UN vote, unchanged. The prospect of rioting is hardly hypothetical; recent weeks have seen repeated instances of Palestinians provoked to violence on Israel’s borders – and disappointed expectations could trigger further bloodshed.
Such violence would have foreseeable ramifications. To protect its citizens in the West Bank – many of whom Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated only last month would have to move under a negotiated two-state agreement – Israeli troops could be forced to redeploy in areas they previously ceded to Palestinian security. Tensions could rise across the region, straining the already limited but mutually beneficial relations between Jordan and Israel and between Egypt and Israel. And tensions, and the real prospect of violence, could leap to Europe and elsewhere, putting Jewish communities at risk.
Beyond its immediate repercussions, the effect of a premature UN recognition vote could be profound on the very negotiations the Palestinians now seek to circumvent, but to which they and the Israelis must necessarily return. We can expect that whatever language is incorporated in the UNGA text will set, from the Palestinians’ perspective, a new floor for those negotiations – limiting their room to maneuver, their ability to compromise. Surely, just as President Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze in 2009 made it impossible for President Abbas to accept anything less as a condition to resume talks, a UN approval of 1967 lines – or, frankly, of any specification for a desired outcome – will become the new bottom line for Palestinian leadership. Unrealistic, unacceptable conditions will be imposed on an already fraught negotiating environment – that is, if the parties can even find their way back to the bargaining table.
A further possible outcome of a UN recognition vote in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will be felt across a range of UN institutions – in cases brought before the International Criminal Court, for instance, and in Palestinian bids for state-membership in UN bodies. We can expect claims and counter-claims, an endless series of political and legal skirmishes.
Will any of this advance the cause of peace? Will it bring the Palestinians closer to the day when they can not only claim but fully implement sovereignty? Will it be a step toward, or a step away, from the goal held out repeatedly by the European Union, the United States, and much of the international community – the goal of two states for two peoples? The answer is no.
In discussions AJC colleagues and I have had in recent weeks with a range of senior European officials – including talks yesterday in Luxembourg on the margins of the Foreign Affairs Council meeting – we have heard clear recognition of the dangers I have just outlined, recognition that the course President Abbas has chosen may be self-defeating at best and profoundly destabilizing at worst. At the same time, we have been reminded that negotiations have been stalled for too long, that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is unsustainable, that the deadline of September’s UN General Assembly session is fast approaching, and that something must be done. With all its obvious risks and regressions, we have been advised, it may be difficult to halt the momentum for UNGA recognition unless negotiations can be restarted before the world body convenes in New York.
I completely agree that the status quo is unsustainable, and that the parties have gone far too long without mutual engagement, without taking sufficient steps to establish mutual trust, without serious negotiations. But the solution to that problem cannot be a step that will end engagement, destroy trust, and torpedo negotiations. The cure for the chronic illness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be the acute illness of unilateral action. We need these patients to get well, and we need to help them.
We also don’t need artificial and arguably unrealistic deadlines – and we don’t need to succumb to do-it-or-else blackmail. We should be pressing both parties to return to the bargaining table – recognizing, I must add, that Israel has been and remains ready to talk to the Palestinians without pre-conditions.
And, as we consult with both parties, and prepare for serious final-status negotiations, we must be mindful of two new strategic factors confronting our longtime democratic ally Israel:
  • First, the uncertain composition and popular backing of the Palestinian Authority, in which the terrorist organization Hamas appears to have enhanced status, despite recent difficulties encountered in finalizing the Fatah-Hamas deal. Israelis will rightly ask with whom they’re expected to negotiate; the lack of clarity on this point deepens suspicions.
  • Second, the shifts in power and apparently rising fortunes of Islamist extremists in neighboring Arab states, beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
We must understand that Israel is being asked by the world to enter into negotiations with, and make far-reaching compromises to, a government that may significantly comprise factions – or so-called technocratic cut-outs for factions – that deny Israel’s right to exist, that countenance violence, that will not honor previous agreements. Greater clarity is needed in what the Hamas-Fatah deal, should it be implemented, means for the Palestinian negotiating posture; we do not yet know enough.
And Israel is being asked to make major changes in its borders, likely shrinking its response time in the event of attack, just as it is seeing powerful challenges in Egypt to the treaty that has been the bulwark of regional peace for more than a generation, just as it is seeing instability on its long-quiet border with Syria, just as Hezbollah – a proxy of Iran – has tightened its grip on Lebanon.
At the insistence of President Abbas, who set this September as the target for his UN recognition bid, even as the region was convulsing, all this Israel is being asked to absorb, accept and adjust to – in just three months.
Yes, the Israelis and Palestinians do need to get back to the bargaining table. I urge you in the European Parliament, as friends of both Israel and the Palestinian people, to devote all possible attention to helping the parties return to the table – not for show, not for photo-ops, but for the resumption of final-status talks, on a calendar that is fixed by both parties, not by one party, and that recognizes the legitimate strategic concerns of each.
The energy that is now being devoted to the Palestinians’ campaign for UN recognition, and that will surely be wasted in the legal and political maneuvering following such a UN vote, must be redirected … toward restoring trust, toward salvaging and rebuilding a peace process; it must not be expended – out of Palestinian pique and stubbornness and fear of the consequences of hard choices – toward blowing it up.
Thank you for allowing me to sketch out the case against premature UN recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state – and thank you for this Delegation’s consistent concern about the security and well-being of Israel.
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC