Palestine's U.N. Bid: Should We Rejoice or Recoil?
Issue   |   Wed, 09/21/2011 - 01:14

On Sept. 23, the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Mohamed Abbas, will formally submit its application for statehood to the United Nations (U.N.). This appeal for statehood began after the tectonic shifts in Middle Eastern politics following the popular uprisings last spring. The PA’s new approach, a U.N. bid, marks yet another transformation in the Arab World, a transformation which may leave Israel, the United States and diplomats puzzled over their former Middle Eastern policies.
As the vote approaches, the U.N. member states should be asking themselves several questions: does the Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood mark a step forward for the Palestinian people? Moreover, is this U.N. bid a legitimate step toward the ultimate goal of Arab-Israeli Peace?

The answer has been a resounding “no” by the United States and Israel. In fact, President Obama dismissed the Palestinian bid in a recent speech as mere “symbolic [action] to isolate Israel at the U.N.” Additionally, a BBC report noted that several key member states currently oppose the bid, making statehood unlikely: “The Council would need nine votes out of 15 and no veto… the U.S. has made clear it would wield its veto, with the U.K. and France almost certainly abstaining.”

Many of us on college campuses are left puzzled by Obama’s words because the attempt by the Palestinian leadership to declare statehood appears sensible and justified. It would be a final recognition of Palestine as a legitimate nation. But why, for example, would an editorial written by the staff of The New York Times begin with the following: “A United Nations vote on Palestinian membership would be ruinous.” After digging through the layers of politic, the true nature of this bid and the reason why various analysts, diplomats and nations remain unenthusiastic and opposed become clear.

First, we must consider why Obama and the others are calling the bid symbolic. If the Palestinians were granted statehood this month, the situation on the ground would remain unchanged. With thousands of Arab-Israelis living as citizens in Israel and thousands of Israelis living as “settlers” in what would become Palestine, a declaration would be useless in deciding the future of these estranged groups. As the U.S. has suggested for months, the only way to remedy problems such as these would be through a negotiated peace agreement. The PA’s bid only circumvents the challenging realities on the ground and the frustrating nature of working towards actual peace.

Additionally, the proposed Palestinian state is currently split into two isolated parts: the West Bank and Gaza. U.N. acceptance would do nothing to heal the geographic split or the divergent politics of a nascent Palestinian State. Furthermore, these two halves are ruled by rival parties. The West Bank is ruled by Fatah and led by the moderate Abbas, who works with Israel daily on security and economic issues. Gaza, however, is ruled by Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group bent on Israel’s destruction and internationally recognized as a terrorist organization. Hamas refuses to negotiate with Israel. While Fatah and Hamas have functioned and governed separately in the past, recently these two groups struck an uneasy partnership in the spirit of the unfolding “Arab Spring.”

With these two very distinct Palestinian parties now aligned, the international community faces a much more complicated situation. As the Director of the Anti-Defamation League put it, “The Palestinian decisions in the last year to refuse to negotiate with Israel, to sign a coalition agreement with terrorist Hamas and now to bring this counterproductive initiative to the United Nations once again raise serious questions about Palestinian intentions.”

Furthermore, granting the Palestinians a state this week would indirectly mean granting a seat in the U.N. to the fundamentalist leaders of Hamas. To win a U.N. bid and the support of the U.S., Hamas would either have to back out of the newly-united government or, at the very least, denounce their violent means of “liberation” and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

These are only a few of the pressing problems that make this week’s U.N. bid a largely symbolic move. Even if the U.S. decided not to veto the bid and the Palestinians were granted statehood, life in Palestine and Israel would be unaffected. The two governments would need to meet and go through the difficult task of negotiations regardless of the U.N.’s decision. So, why is the PA pushing forward without regard for the reality of the situation? With little to gain pragmatically within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the PA’s actions merely represent a plea for international support and “good press,” and hardly show concern for the quality of life of the average Palestinian. As Obama has suggested, to make real changes to the status quo, Abbas must sit at a table with Netanyahu, and together they must make hard choices. While Abbas and the PA have reason to be frustrated, their plea fails to address the core of the dispute and instead skirts around unavoidable and necessary peace talks.

What the U.N. bid achieves for the average Palestinian remains unclear, but the bid does real damage to the chances for peace in the region. In the months leading up to the bid, the leaders of the West Bank have been actively encouraging protests. After seeing the Western world’s enthusiastic reaction to the “Arab Spring,” the PA has attempted to sell their U.N. bid as an extension of this movement. While revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria began from the ground up, recent protests in the West Bank have not been led by the “aspiring youth,” but by government officials. Israel, traumatized by the bombings during the popular uprisings from 2000 to 2005, has become unnerved as the PA has begun to fan a perilous flame. During the last Intifada, the number of casualties on both sides was horrific. Since the increase in security and the renouncement of violence by the PA, the Palestinian economy has had a huge growth spurt. The security and economic cooperation between Israel and the PA has improved life for both Palestinians and Israelis. The approaching bid threatens to renew the violence and puts these improvements in jeopardy. While we hope these protests will remain peaceful, history suggests otherwise.

This bid aspires to fracture the Israel-U.S. alliance. With the U.S. undoubtedly vetoing the motion, the only possible result is further isolation of Israel and unhelpful pressure on the Obama administration and any other parties seeking a lasting peace. The PA’s U.N. bid is shrewd in that regard; it focuses the world’s attention on the Palestinians’ desire for statehood, removing from the framework the very real security and geographic barriers placed on Israel, while aspiring to fracture the U.S.-Israel relationship. Unfortunately, all this fanfare accomplishes nothing for the average Palestinian and threatens to widen the gulf between Palestinians and Israelis.

While Israel is not free of blame — the fault of the stalled peace talks is shared — real peace can only be achieved by restarting the slow and painful process of negations. A unilateral declaration avoids confronting the issues at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict altogether; instead of offering solutions, it enlarges the problem. Israel has proven time and again that it is willing to make tough concessions for peace. Israel gave up the Sinai Peninsula for peace with Egypt, withdrew from southern Lebanon in an effort to assuage the Lebanese, including Hezbollah, and unilaterally left Gaza in the hopes of fostering peace with its residents. None of these concessions resulted in enduring peace; Hezbollah has only grown stronger in Lebanon, Gaza is now ruled by the extremist of Hamas and, perhaps worst of all, after 30 years the Egyptian peace deal is on the brink of collapse. Nonetheless, Israel is still willing to extend its hand. But, for progress to be made, meetings between the parties must take place. Palestinian efforts to plead for an international community in New York City are futile. Though it may not be the easiest route, the best route for Israelis and Palestinians alike is to address the issue head-on with direct negotiations. All involved must remember that a failure to come closer to peace means another step towards war.

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