It was not supposed to happen this way. The declaration of an independent Palestinian state has been, since 1993, the end goal of a well-established peace process in which both Israel and the Palestinians are first expected to make series of concessions, sacrifices and mutual understandings.
So when most of the nations of the world voted in the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday to recognize Palestine as a symbolic member state, many saw the move as a pre-emption of that peace process and a provocation that would only drive the two parties further into conflict.
That seemed to be confirmed this weekend, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the Palestinians, announcing the confiscation of their tax revenues and authorizing the construction of illegal settlements in the most sensitive Palestinian regions. In exchange, Britain and France summoned the Israeli ambassadors to their countries and threatened to break off diplomatic relations with the Jewish state entirely.
Yet there is a growing understanding in the capitals of most Western countries (with the notable exception of Canada) that the unilateral declaration of statehood was not just inevitable, but, given the dark and violent state of Israel-Palestinian relations, was largely a beneficial move. This is why most countries, including extremely pro-Israeli governments such as Britain’s, chose not to vote against the resolution. While it won’t do anything for people living in Gaza, Ramallah, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv (and doesn’t even make Palestine a state in any meaningful way), the statehood resolution offers three small but potentially useful benefits:
A small break in the deadlock
The years before 2009 saw some encouraging signs of progress toward a two-state resolution of the conflict, including Israel’s expulsion of its illegal settlers in Gaza and a dramatic and risky set of offers by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But that all came crashing to a halt with the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During his three years in office, Mr. Netanyahu has actively resisted any meaningful efforts toward a resolution; instead, he has allowed settlements to expand dramatically beyond Israel’s borders, allowed the intolerant views of extremist parties a place in his cabinet, and rejected U.S. efforts to broker a deal, instead humiliating Mr. Abbas and effectively handing power to Hamas, the extremist group that governs Gaza and engages in rocket attacks against Israel. The Palestinians, for their part, are starkly divided between an increasingly marginal Mr. Abbas and a resurgent Hamas.
Something had to end this lethal deadlock. The statehood declaration at least provided a small starting point – in part by shaking up the old, dormant peace process and offering some new openings.
For one thing, Europe’s wholesale rejection of Mr. Netanyahu’s position provides an opening. One of the Israeli government’s key ambitions is to join the European Union, which is its main and crucial trading partner. By ending complacent acceptance of Israel’s lassitude, the Middle East analyst Juan Cole notes , Europe now has “the opportunity to play the kind of honest broker between the two sides that the U.S. pretended to be but almost never did.”
In other words, writes Sharon Pardo of Ben-Gurion University, “Europe could offer Israelis and Palestinians the sweetest carrot in its arsenal in the form of a European vision, including perhaps eventual EU membership. Europe would have to condition such a vision on a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.”
Even some conservatives who sometimes support Mr. Netanyahu saw the declaration as a minor breakthrough. “It was striking to me,” David Frum wrote , that Mr. Abbas’s speech to the UN “was conciliatory, not provocative… it is a much more explicit statement of co-existence than was ever offered from a UN rostrum by Abbas’s predecessor… Abbas spoke for legality and democracy in a future Palestinian state.”
This, Mr. Frum noted, puts Israel in a corner, one that is best escaped by reciprocating the gesture: “Israel, too, has reason to show a friendly face to the word. If Abbas talks peace, let Israel talk peace. If Abbas expresses a wish for a two-state agreement, let Israel do the same.”
A win for Mr. Abbas
No Palestinian leader has ever done as much toward a workable two-state solution as Mahmoud Abbas. As documents leaked in 2011 revealed , the Palestinian leader had offered large-scale border concessions, an end to the “right of return,” a generous compromise on Jerusalem and deals around Jewish-Muslim holy sites – all of which was rejected outright by Israel.
This had the unfortunate effect of making Mr. Abbas appear to many Palestinians to be weak, ineffectual and compromised by the Israelis – at the precise moment that Hamas, renewed by support from Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere, was seemingly showing strength and pride by firing rockets into Israel.
So a victory for Mr. Abbas, even a symbolic one, was badly needed for him to have any hope of reclaiming the balance of power in the occupied territories.
Voting for Palestinian statehood in the UN, the former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin wrote , was a way for the world “to express support for the Palestinian party that recognizes Israel, seeks to avoid violence, and genuinely wishes to reach a peace agreement in which a Palestinian state exists alongside – not instead of – Israel.”
And it is equally encouraging that major Western countries are taking diplomatic action against Israel’s retaliation. As Mr. Beilin added: “If American and Israeli opposition to a Palestinian bid continues, it could serve as a mortal blow to Mr. Abbas, and end up being a prize that enhances the power and legitimacy of Hamas.”
Indeed, the aftermath of the UN vote seemed to create a wave of popularity for Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party in Gaza – forcing the militant Hamas to make concessions to Fatah and allow its officials back into Gaza. It’s not clear yet whether Mr. Abbas’s political future could be saved by the UN resolution, but it’s the best hope he’s had in years.
A loss for Mr. Netanyahu
Israeli elections will be held on January 22, and polls have been showing a re-election victory for Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition – a result that would be tragic for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, both of whom have been hurt badly by the ugly confrontation his political positions have provoked.
To make matters worse, Mr. Netanyahu’s military campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza, Operation Pillar of Defence, may have helped his coalition in the polls (and certainly did not hurt it).
So it was encouraging to see Mr. Netanyahu coming under attack within Israel – including from some members of the right – for creating a situation at the UN where Israel had only Washington and seven other relatively unimportant countries (including Canada) on its side. While polls this weekend still showed his right-wing coalition in the lead, they would govern with a smaller plurality than they hold in the current Knesset.
And the humiliation at the UN, though it isn’t registering among voters yet, has become the main theme of the election this week, with popular politicians attacking the prime minister for it.
“The decision to build thousands of housing units as punishment to the Palestinians,” former foreign minister and opposition leader Tzipi Livni said, “only punishes Israel, and only isolates Israel further.”
And this weekend, former prime minister Ehud Olmert – hardly a dove himself – used a speech in Washington to accuse Mr. Netanyahu of having delivered “the worst possible slap in the face you can give to the [U.S.] President” and utterly failing to pursue peace.
By turning the Israeli political spectrum against Mr. Netanyahu and handing victory to Mr. Abbas over Hamas, the UN vote has already accomplished something. Whether it can do more, in this dark moment, is not likely – but it was certainly better than nothing.
We welcome your comments on the issues discussed in this article. In an ongoing effort to improve the quality of discussion at globeandmail.com, all comments will be reviewed by moderators in accordance with our guidelines. Thanks for your contributions.
Mobile users can click here to comment