On Nov. 29, the 65th anniversary of the United Nations’ unfulfilled Palestine partition plan, the Palestinians took a symbolic but significant leap forward toward statehood when the UN upgraded their status to non-member observer state and reaffirmed their right to self-determination on the basis of the pre-1967 lines. The UN’s General Assembly passed this historic resolution by a lopsided margin of 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions.
The motion, though non-binding, was an embarrassing setback to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, underscoring the strong international consensus that has coalesced around the concept of Palestinian independence and laying bare Israel’s virtual isolation on this combustible issue.
Israel’s vehement rejection of the resolution was supported by only a short list of nations: the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama and a handful of remote South Pacific islands. Countries normally friendly to Israel, such as France, Italy and Costa Rica, backed it, as did powers such as Russia and China and the entire Asian and African bloc. Nations usually close to Israel, ranging from Germany and Poland to Australia and Britain, abstained.
For Israel, this was nothing less than a diplomatic debacle.
The Palestinians rejoiced in their victory, concluding they will be able to legally challenge Israel’s settlement policies at the International Criminal Court. But in the West Bank – one of the territorial components of Palestinian statehood aside from the Gaza Strip – the status quo prevails.
By virtue of the Oslo accords, which divided the West Bank into Area A, Area B and Area C, Israel remains firmly entrenched in at least two of these places.
In Area C, which accounts for almost two-thirds of the West Bank and contains more than 100 Jewish settlements, Israel retains full civil and military control. Israel, in Area B, shares joint security responsibility with the Palestinian Authority. Only in Area A, where major Palestinian towns are found, is the PA fully in charge of its affairs.
Israel also maintains a tight grip on the West Bank through a system of checkpoints, which regulate the flow of people and trade. Palestinian statehood is thus directly dependent on Israel’s goodwill, consent and co-operation.
Before the PA brought its case for statehood to the UN, Israel threatened to rescind economic agreements with the PA and cancel work permits for Palestinian workers employed in Israel. Although Israel did not resort to any of these draconian measures, its response to the resolution was nonetheless punitive.
Israel announced it would withhold $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues. But on a more strategic level, Israel authorized the construction of 3,000 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank and disclosed that preliminary zoning and planning preparations would be undertaken in an empty section of the West Bank known as E-1.
The United States – Israel’s chief ally – as well as western European governments condemned the measures as counter-productive, saying they would impair the prospect of enticing the PA back to the negotiating table and achieving a two-state solution. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was equally critical, describing Israel’s plans as a major blow to the attainment of peace.
To its detractors, the E-1 plan is of particular concern because it would partially cut the West Bank into separate entities and block access to eastern Jerusalem from Ramallah and Bethlehem, thereby rendering a contiguous Palestinian state extremely problematic.
This is an issue that goes to the heart of the matter, especially as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Since 2008, when the last substantive talks took place, the PA has refused to resume negotiations unless Israel stops all construction in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem and recognizes the pre-1967 lines as the basis for future negotiations.
In his speech to the UN on the eve of the passage of last month’s resolution, PA President Mahmoud Abbas expressed a desire to “launch a final serious attempt to achieve peace” based on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue. Last May, in a letter to Abbas, Netanyahu rejected these conditions. Netanyahu has set down his own set of pre-conditions for restarting talks: the PA must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, accept Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank, acquiesce to an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and end all claims against Israel.
Netanyahu professes to support the notion of a contiguous Palestinian state, having said last April it should not look like “Swiss cheese.” But by having doubled the portion of the national budget allocated to settlements in the West Bank, as Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz disclosed recently, Netanyahu’s commitment has been called into question.
Three years ago, Israel imposed a 10-month partial settlement freeze in the West Bank, but with the Palestinians demanding a total building moratorium, in line with the Obama administration’s policy, negotiations were not resumed. The United States asked Israel to extend the freeze, but Netanyahu declined.
Almost two weeks before the General Assembly upgraded the Palestinians’ status at the UN, Abbas laid down two potentially important markers. He said he would be prepared to resume talks with Israel once the national aspirations of the Palestinians were recognized by the UN. And in his clearest definition of what future Israeli borders would be acceptable to the PA, he declared, “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza [are] Palestine, and the other parts [are] Israel.”
Commenting on Abbas’ statement, Israeli President Shimon Peres described him as “a real partner for peace.” Netanyahu, however, dismissed Abbas’ formulation, claiming there was “no connection” between his words and deeds.
Cognizant that the peace process is irretrievably bogged down and that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank may well erode its character as a democratic Jewish state, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has suggested that the impasse can be broken with a unilateral Israeli pullout from much of the West Bank, leaving only the settlement blocs in Israel’s hands. By all accounts, Netanyahu does not regard Barak’s proposal seriously.
Recently, the UN released a report suggesting that a two-state solution is imperilled by three overlapping factors: the current stalemate in negotiations, Israel’s continuing presence in the West Bank and the PA’s economic woes.
Yaakov Perry, the former director of the Shin Bet internal intelligence agency, has taken note of the paralysis that ails the peace process, having warned that Israel’s “sit and do nothing policy” in the West Bank is pushing Israel toward a binational state, which, he asserted, “could spell the destruction of the Zionist vision.”
Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Israel’s opposition and a former Israel Defence Forces chief of staff, has spoken to this issue, too, having raised the possibility that the threat of a binational state is far greater than the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.
Their warnings may well explain why Ehud Olmert, Israel’s former prime minister, went out on a limb and endorsed the PA’s bid for non-member state status at the UN. “The Palestinian request,” he said, “is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution.”