In the last week, indeed for several months, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) has been working tirelessly and closely with our unique network of affiliates around the world to explain the dangers of the prospective motion on unilateral Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. Most recently, together with the esteemed steering committee of WJC’s partner group, the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians (ICJP), chaired by the renowned Italian lawmaker Fiamma Nirenstein, the WJC met behind closed doors with leading European ambassadors to the United Nations in New York, particularly those whose vote will be critical in determining the future of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. In Washington, 12 members of the House of Representatives shared ideas about how to get the Arab-Israeli peace process back on track while derailing the destructive Palestinian unilateral gambit for U.N. state recognition.
Why are we so concerned, and why have we and our partners devoted so much energy to such an issue? Showing a degree of leadership that has encouraged us, the Obama administration has, after all, pledged to veto the reckless Palestinian move at the Security Council, and has been energetic in its own diplomacy to get the Palestinians to think again, while also putting the case against it to countries around the world.
The essential question is this: If, as Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas intends, the Palestinian leadership moves for a vote on the same issue at the General Assembly, will their in-built and automatic majority produce what will merely be seen as nothing more significant than yet another anti-Israeli resolution in an institution hardly known for its love of the Jewish state?
Not this time. The dangers of the Palestinian move must not be underestimated, though they need some explaining.
First, the move itself. The Palestinian leadership is attempting to bypass direct negotiations in order to achieve its maximal aims without making concessions on any of the core issues, including the long-disputed issue of borders, settlements, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, all while maintaining its interest in keeping the conflict on a low flame. While recognizing that legally, the General Assembly cannot confer statehood, the Palestinian unilateral gambit would also involve upgrading its diplomatic status at the General Assembly, thus allowing it greater access to institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice for the purposes of further assaulting the State of Israel as and when it sees fit, as Abbas noted in a May 16, 2011, New York Times opinion piece.
The symbolic importance is perhaps even more significant. A resolution of this kind will produce newspaper headlines around the world, effectively saying that the Palestinian agenda has been endorsed by the bulk of the international community, further isolating Israel and undermining its profound concerns about the United Nation’s severe violation of its fundamental rights and, even more urgently, its national security.
Second, the regional context. As recent events in Turkey and the storming earlier this month of the Israeli embassy in Cairo have demonstrated all too clearly, the implications of the so-called Arab spring for the State of Israel remain unclear. While we at the World Jewish Congress are as hopeful as anyone for a flowering of liberal democracy in the Middle East, none but the most naïve would regard such an outcome as certain.
A resolution endorsing Palestinian demands at the United Nations would provide easy ammunition for those seeking to exploit deeply hostile attitudes to Israel and the Jews, which have festered in Arab society for decades. Bashar al-Assad in Syria already has attempted to divert attention from his bloody repression in Syria by playing the Palestinian card in clashes in the Golan. With the Middle East still in turmoil, the prospective resolution on Palestinian statehood is playing with fire.
Third, the Palestinian context. In many ways, this is the most dangerous aspect of all, though it is also the easiest to miss. Palestinian President Abbas soon plans to step down as leader. This is well-known. What is less well-known is that the power struggle between Palestinian factions is already well under way. Despite the ostensible agreement between Hamas and Fatah, there is deep and violent animosity between them. Equally, there are deep divisions inside Fatah itself that make governing a responsible Palestinian state virtually impossible.
Because Israel will inevitably reject any externally imposed solutions, it is highly plausible that the kind of U.N. resolution envisaged could hand the initiative to the hardliners who might well claim that diplomacy has failed, leaving “resistance” — read “terrorism” — as the only viable alternative. Renewed violence against Israel could also be used as a distraction from what can already be characterized as a de facto civil war between Hamas and Fatah.
It is also noteworthy that while Abbas wants to use this initiative as a legacy issue to demonstrate that his leadership of the Palestinians has been of significant and historic importance, other senior Palestinians are deeply concerned.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, for one, is known to oppose the move, fully aware of the dangers just described.
Israel has yearned for a genuine partner for peace for decades. Violent chaos among the Palestinians is not only against their own interests; it is against Israel’s.
It is for all these reasons that we have been working so hard to ensure that cool heads prevail and that such a reckless and dangerous move by the Palestinians at the United Nations either fails completely or is not supported by large numbers of countries across the Western world and beyond. The Europeans in particular will be important. If they refuse to back the move, as some have already indicated to us, the legitimacy of any resolution on Palestinian statehood will be reduced significantly.
The international community has been trying to help Israel and the Palestinians reach a mutually acceptable accommodation on the basis of direct negotiations for decades. Now is not the time to tear that principle to shreds with all the attendant dangers it might entail.