The Israeli government, by deed if not by word, is not fundamentally interested in the creation of a credible Palestinian state. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has reckoned, presumably, that Israel is safer behind the wall it has built between its territory and the Palestinian Authority territories than were a formal state created there, even a demilitarized one.
To that end, Israel has continued to build settlements in areas the Palestinians would want for an eventual state. When the Obama administration chides the Netanyahu government about these practices, and encourages it to restart formal negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli Prime Minister essentially stiffs the White House and appeals to the strongly pro-Israel U.S. Congress.
Nothing ever being simple in that part of the world, the Palestinian Authority has decided to try a diplomatic end run around Israel and the United States. In a few weeks, it will ask to be admitted to the United Nations as a state, even though it’s not a state by conventional definition.
This request, were it first routed to the Security Council, would win a solid majority but ultimately be vetoed by Washington. In the General Assembly, however, a motion making the Palestinian Authority a member state (instead of having formal observer status, as it now enjoys) but not quite a member state will win overwhelmingly. Such a vote would allow the Palestinian Authority to participate in UN activities as if it were a state, without having the entire panoply of privileges accorded full members. This new status, apart from raising its profile and perhaps legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, would allow it to raise the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in all UN forums.
The likely Palestinian diplomatic victory alarms both Israelis and Americans, although unconditional supporters of Israel such as the Harper government will shrug off this victory as more Palestinian grandstanding. The Palestinian Authority can win all the victories it wants in the UN, an organization Israel deeply dislikes, but without formal negotiations leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, it will be no closer to an actual state.
From what we might call a technical, legal perspective, the Palestinian Authority’s demand to be admitted to the UN raises awkward questions. Since it doesn’t control all the territory it claims, what kind of precedent might this create? After all, there are regional conflicts across the globe in which groups claim territory they don’t control. Should they be admitted as a member state just because they claim that which they don’t control?
From a wider political perspective, it’s easy to understand the Palestinians’ strategy. When faced with the evident failure of the so-called Oslo peace process – direct negotiations with Israel – the Palestinian Authority hoped Washington could press Israel into concessions. That effort failed, so it began a steady process of trying to build up the institutions of a state on the West Bank and deliver improved government services.
The gap between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas that governs Gaza was theoretically narrowed by a kind of fragile unity government. But the participation of Hamas killed whatever forlorn hope existed that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might restart, since Hamas is considered a terrorist organization and hasn’t recognized Israel’s right to exist.
The looming UN vote comes at a bad time for Israel, where internal opinion has hardened in recent years against negotiations, let alone concessions. The belief that Israel is surrounded by hostility has surely deepened with the strained diplomatic relations with Turkey, the sacking of the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the uncertainties within Syria, to say nothing of Iran’s sworn antipathy. The Arab Spring, hailed elsewhere, threatened the understandings Israel had developed with certain Arab neighbours.
The U.S., under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has said a viable Palestinian state should exist. But getting there remains as intractably difficult as ever. It will remain so even if, as expected, the Palestinians win their UN victory.