Last month will always be remembered as the beginning of an historic new chapter in the Israel-Palestine saga. On Sept. 23, an application from the Palestinian Authority for full statehood began winding its way through the UN Security Council. It may be many months before a decision is reached, but in any event, relations between the two will be changed forever.
Whether that change is for better or worse, though, will depend on a dizzying number of factors. And in any case, the bid itself is as much a move in the region’s ongoing political chess game as it is an actual expression of a desire for sovereignty. That reality will colour any outcome and calls into question the motivations of both a Palestine that may not be ready for statehood and an Israel that seems ready to stall progress at any cost.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) — a somewhat ironic moniker — is led by a relative moderate, Mahmoud Abbas, whose party, Fatah, is based in the West Bank. But the organization’s authority over militants in the Gaza Strip is tenuous at best. Furthermore, the dominant political party in Gaza, Hamas, is vehemently anti-Israeli. Its current constitution calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and its willingness to budge on many points in negotiations is questionable. The current union between the two groups might also easily collapse depending on the outcome of the elections to be held next year.
These are serious problems for any peace process going forward and should raise major alarms for anyone who would otherwise support the UN bid. In fact, this should almost be a greater concern for those who support Palestinian self-determination. If Palestine were granted full statehood and then collapsed for lack of political unity, it would play right into the hands of its opponents and severely limit its options going forward.
But Palestine isn’t the only one throwing up roadblocks. Israel, which is categorically opposed to the UN bid, continually insists the only path to peace is direct negotiations between it and the PA, and yet has done little to grease the rails. Jewish settlement in territory claimed by Palestinians needs to be stopped, at the very least to prevent further complication of the geography of a two-state solution, but the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has done nothing to this end.
In my opinion, Israel cannot expect a Palestinian state to function without vital economic centres like East Jerusalem. Such a situation would not be much different from the current one, and a poor and throttled Palestine could easily destabilize, with the consequences inevitably spilling over into Israel.
Of course, it’s arguable this is the endgame Israel, or at least some within it, is seeking. And if that is the case, all the more reason to see the UN bid as a purely strategic move as opposed to a stand of conscience — the PA, unable to engage directly with Israel on either’s terms, is throwing a Hail Mary in the hopes it can somehow publicly shame Netanyahu into giving ground.
If that is the case, I believe the UN application should probably fail. The UN should not allow itself be cajoled into granting statehood to an organization when the bid is the result of a forced gambit. Not only does that put the acute situation in Palestine at risk, but it sets a bad precedent for the future. As much as statehood is in many ways a symbolic formality in this instance, it is still a fundamental component of the international system, and its underlying principles should not be tossed aside too easily.
That being said, the only realistic path to peace in the region is a completely sovereign Palestine. If the bid is rejected, it should be done in such a way so as to assure the PA that a future application would not necessarily be rejected.
And in the meantime, while the current motion makes its way through the UN bureaucracy, there is nothing stopping a new round of talks from commencing. The U.S., who has sided with Israel on this issue, might as well continue to throw its weight around and use the pressure created by the bid to strong-arm both sides to the table, even informally. This would go a long way towards stalling the slowly increasing tensions on the streets, which, if they erupt into violence, would add an unneeded complication to the whole process.
One thing is for certain: No matter the outcome of the UN bid, there will be a large group of people who are unhappy with it. Some would be unhappy no matter what. It’s up to the UN and Israeli and Palestinian leadership to make sure such disappointment does not derail the peace process. State or no state, everyone needs to keep in mind that while this may be the beginning of a new chapter, it’s still going to be a long road to the end.
Greg Sacks is a member of the Manitoban’s volunteer staff.