By Daniel Schwammenthal
The war between Hamas and Israel has barely ended but the Palestinians are already off to their next battle – this time on the diplomatic front. Having been marginalized by the Gaza conflict, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remains determined to ask the United Nations General Assembly for non-member observer state status on Thursday.
He apparently hopes that this move will make him and the PA “relevant,” as the Jerusalem Post put it Friday, citing diplomatic sources. Now here is a crazy thought: If Mr. Abbas wants to become more relevant again, how about focusing his energy on state-building, fighting corruption at home, and getting back to the negotiating table? Having failed to embrace the offer by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a comprehensive peace in 2008, he has largely refused to even speak to Mr. Olmert's successor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Abbas then has the chutzpah to cite the absence of peace talks, which he is himself boycotting, as justification for going to the UN. Given the traditional voting patterns in the general assembly, the resolution is sure to pass. With the 120-strong non-aligned movement, of which 56 are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Palestinians could easily win a resolution saying black is white. But the real fight is for Western legitimacy.
Unfortunately, a number of European Union member states are likely to back the UN move. This would be a mistake. If the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict should have taught us one thing, it is that the Palestinian interests are not necessarily identical with their leadership’s policies. The UN vote may give the PA a state on paper but it will not change the reality on the ground. The creation of a state can only come through direct negotiations and any UN endorsement based on Palestinian terms will only make it harder to find a mutually acceptable compromise in the future.
The UN bid thus threatens to divorce the creation of a Palestinian state from the ultimate goal of achieving peace. The only valid legal framework between Israel and the Palestinians – the 1995 “Oslo Accords” – specifically forbids the sort of unilateral maneuver Mr. Abbas plans. “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the Permanent Status negotiations,” it reads.
By supporting the unilateral UN bid, EU member states would not only assist the Palestinians in violating their contractual obligations, they would also undermine the EU’s own standing, which after all signed the Oslo Accords as a witness. And how will violating past agreements encourage Israelis to trust Palestinians to abide by future agreements? The just-ended Hamas conflict underlined Israel’s dilemma, which in any future peace deal will have to give up territory and thus security. But building trust is not on Mr. Abbas’s agenda.
In a New York Times op-ed last year, the PA President outlined his UN move as part of a plan to intensify the conflict, for instance by bringing charges at the International Criminal Court. Such a step and the inevitable Israeli countercharges would make reconciliation so much harder. Speaking of countercharges: Does his UN gambit mean that Mr. Abbas is now taking responsibility for the war crimes and terrorism committed by Hamas? If not, how does he reconcile his statehood bid with the stubborn fact that he lacks control over Gaza, a significant part of that new “observer state.”
Control over defined territory remains one of the basic legal criteria for statehood. So why is Mr. Abbas going to New York instead of Jerusalem to negotiate peace? Word here in Brussels is that he doesn’t trust Mr. Netanyahu. But what does the head of a state that does not yet exist have to lose from talking to the only man who can bring it about? Mr. Netanyahu has accepted the two-state solution, said he’s ready for the necessary “painful compromises,” and repeatedly invited Mr. Abbas for direct talks.
So why not take him by his word and either negotiate an end to the conflict or, if Mr. Netanyahu is really only bluffing, “expose” him? To add an air of substance for his refusal to negotiate, President Abbas blamed the settlements, demanding a construction halt as a precondition to talks. But when Mr. Netanyahu agreed in 2009 to a 10-months building moratorium, Mr. Abbas still stayed away for nine out of these 10 months, showing up only when no more time was left for meaningful talks. So who’s bluffing?
The UN vote is set for November 29th, the day of the 1947 UN Resolution that called for the creation of a Palestinian and a Jewish state. Mr. Abbas probably thinks the date’s symbolism will help his cause. It shouldn’t. The reason Palestine doesn’t exist yet is that unlike the Jewish leadership at the time, the Palestinians and their Arab brethren rejected the partition plan before attacking the newly born Israel. The Palestinians are about to compound their 1947 UN blunder with yet another misstep at the world body. No EU country should be complicit in this mistake.
Daniel Schwammenthal is Director of the AJC Transatlantic Institute in Brussels