Cynicism and skepticism always have their place, but today might just go down as an historic day on the Israeli-Palestinian front. No, there is no direct or quick fix move from the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the actual realization of a Palestinian state (and certainly not when one factors in the Israeli response) but the Palestinian U.N. move does represent the most definitive break yet with the failed and structurally flawed strategies for advancing peace of many a year. Many Palestinians and others are now suggesting that the PLO leadership progress from the symbolism of September 23rd to a concerted struggle for their freedom centered on nonviolent resistance, diplomacy, and international legality, believing that this would finally deliver a breakthrough.
In its theatrics, today was rather predictable -- other than the Quartet statement of the afternoon, on which more in a moment. The speeches of Abbas and Netanyahu held few, if any, surprises. Abbas played to the Palestinian community at home and around the world, and to the rest of the international community.
Abbas spoke to the refugee experience, including his own, while leaving wiggle room for a future solution and embracing the Arab Peace Initiative on this score. He clarified that the PLO would continue to represent all Palestinians until all issues are definitively resolved, urged that this not become a religious struggle (pushing back on Netanyahu's attempt to make this about a Jewish state), and linked the Palestinian struggle for rights to the so-called Arab Spring, albeit something that will have to be born out in reality beyond the made-for-TV pictures from Ramallah's town square.
Abbas could also not have been more explicit on this being a Palestine alongside Israel, on the 67 lines, on only 22% of Mandatory Palestine -- and thus calling the lie on Netanyahu's claim that Abbas wants to have a state that would come at Israel's expense, replacing Israel.
Netanyahu was playing to the Israeli public and to the American and Jewish right. His speech represented a doubling down of the porcupine strategy that guides his government's policy. He told the world body that its Security Council was being presided over by terrorists and posed as the champion of the "Clash of Civilizations" narrative. In reminding his audience of the sacrifices entailed by Israel's withdrawal from Gaza six years ago, he somehow overlooked the fact that this was a withdrawal that he himself vociferously opposed. In referring several times to Israel's peace with Egypt, Netanyahu may have left some reminiscing that in that agreement Israel withdrew to the last centimeter of the 67 lines, removed every settler and IDF position, and entrusted security to an international force -- the MFO.
In response to their respective speeches, Abbas received overwhelming applause from the delegates in the GA hall while Netanyahu's support came only from his own delegation and from the peanut gallery -- perhaps that was filled with a U.S. congressional delegation on a daytrip to the U.N.!
As attention shifts away from Turtle Bay, one should look to at least three arenas for what happens next.
First, What next at the U.N.? Do the Palestinians also go to the General Assembly in the coming days and weeks -- especially when their move is visibly stuck in committee at the Security Council? Pressure is likely to grow on Abbas to make that move and the lead option might become to re-cast the Sarkozy speech into a General Assembly initiative with European and Arab support. Doing so would give the Palestinians a concrete achievement, constituting an upgrade to non-member state while receiving an overwhelming General Assembly majority as things slowly progressed at the Security Council.
Second, what happens on the ground? Mass nonviolent popular protests? Do settlers provoke, is there violence, what will be the IDF response. Will Palestinians really join the "Arab Spring"?
Third, how does the government of Israel respond? Do they take punitive measures against the PA as some ministers -- led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- have threatened, including withholding Palestinian tax revenues? This would be hugely counter-productive of course and ultimately hurt Israel more than the Palestinians. But that Israel might nonetheless do this speaks to the excesses of Netanyahu-led government and its crass political and tactical calculations.
Finally, what of that Quartet statement hurriedly put together and released just hours after the two leaders' speeches had surely rendered it dead on arrival.
After over two months of trying and in a week in which Israel-Palestine has dominated the global agenda, the Quartet belatedly showed signs of life in releasing a statement. But that statement was perhaps more noteworthy for what was omitted than for what was codified. Since President Obama's two speeches in May, the Quartet, notably in a principals meeting in July - and then for much of this week in New York - has been attempting to reach language on proposed parameters for a two-state solution that would then be presented to the parties and to the world. That consensus could not be reached.
The Europeans, alongside the Russians and the envoy of the U.N. Secretary General, adhered more closely to parameters that have previously been discussed as well as to certain principles of international law (in particular, not koshering the settlements post-facto). At the same time, the US administration sought to further move the goal posts for a two-state deal in the direction of the Netanyahu government's comfort zone -- a place faraway from any reasonable two-state outcome. The Palestinians can be relieved that the drafts prepared between Jerusalem and Washington did not prevail.
Instead, the Quartet presented what was largely a reiteration of existing positions and a limited procedural agenda and timetable to promote negotiations and an agreement. The Quartet's apparent continued faith in the idea that negotiations between the parties can be fruitful and that trust can be built seems ever-more detached from reality. More extensive heavy-lifting will be needed by the international community if a realistic basis is to be created for any future direct-negotiations. Notably they would have to address the asymmetry that exists between the parties and the Israeli sense of impunity for maintaining and entrenching a status quo of occupation.
There were, nonetheless, a few features of this Quartet statement worthy of comment:
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