Tuesday, September 13, 2011


While the state of the U.S. economy continues to dominate discussion among the politicians in Washington D.C. and the general public, and attention has been recently diverted with 9-11 remembrances, the President's jobs speech and the debates between Republican presidential candidates, an issue of significant international importance is fast approaching.   The United Nations opens its annual assembly on September 13th at its headquarters in New York City and at this meeting the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas may ask for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood and full UN membership.   However, there are last minute discussions among international leaders which might lead Abbas to seek only General Assembly approval for permanent "observer" status which would allow it to join a number of international organizations which would be an upgrade from its present status.

Either way, his move is in response to decades of failed negotiations with Israel on the final status of Palestine.  It will, in all probability be approved in the 193 member UN General Assembly but at this point in time a petition to the UN Security Council for full membership and recognition as a state will fail based on a veto by the United States.  President Obama has stated his intention to carry out this veto and has been lobbying several other Security Council member states, some with veto power (Great Britain, France) and some without (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Portugal) to vote against any such proposal.  Obama is anxious for the U.S. not to be seen as the lone obstacle to Palestinian statehood in the UN.  The position of the U.S. and several other European Union states is that a Palestinian state must be created through direct negotiations with Israel and with assistance from the so called "Quartet" nations (U.S., EU, Russia and UN).

The importance of any effort to achieve statehood or quasi-statehood by simple declaration in the UN rests more on the consequences of denial than on the process itself.  The changes wrought by the "Arab Spring" have created much instability and uncertainty in the region, not the least of which is the relationship of Israel with the evolving governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen.  Less cooperation and more hostility seems likely.  These new orientations could, and indeed will, likely overlap onto Israel's major supporter, the United States.  So the important question with respect to Abbas' UN initiative is "What will be the ramifications of a U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood in the Security Council or U.S. lobbying efforts against enhanced observer status in the General Assembly?"

Former Saudi Arabian Intelligence Chief and former Ambassador to the U.S. Turk al-Faisal has stated that the U.S. already ". . . has little credibility in the Arab world" and thus must support the Palestinian effort or lose what "credibility remains".  Public opinion polls in the region support his contention in spite of Obama's "outreach" to the Muslim world.  However, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have much to do with this.  Nonetheless, al-Faisal sees a diminution of Israeli security and enhanced Iranian power leading to increased chances of another regional war.  He overstates the immediate consequences of the U.S. position however.  American credibility/influence will be more affected by its financial support for the new Arab governments than the Palestinian issue, which because of six decades of U.S. support for Israel is in this instance is largely symbolic as it leaves the critical issues with respect to Israel unresolved.  The U.S. has made clear its support for Palestinian statehood.  It is the process used to achieve this that is the subject of debate.

Saudi Arabia is more focused on Iran than on the Palestinian people.  They have for a long time been a religious (Sunni vs. Shia) and political counterweight to Iran in terms of its regional ambitions.  Turk al-Faisal is thus positioning the Saudi government in this episode as a reliable Arab  supporter of the Palestinians.  He claims that if the U.S. exercises its veto in the Security Council, the U.S./Saudi relationship will suffer as Saudi leaders "are forced to adopt a more independent and assertive foreign policy vis a' vis the U.S.  While not entirely an empty threat, it does seem exaggerated.  Another reliable anti-Iranian partner of any significance is not on the scene.  The U.S. has a well established military presence in the Mid-East with its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and is the major supplier of Saudi arms.  The 2010 announcement of a multi-year deal worth $60.5 billion underlies that relationship.

However, the clear impracticality and inadvisability of a "state by vote" in the case of Palestine should be clear.  First, UN membership is open only to "sovereign states" which under international law are commonly defined as states which through a legitimate government exercise exclusive control of domestic and foreign affairs in an area of clearly defined and internationally accepted geographical boundaries. The Palestinian territories are made up of the West Bank and Gaza which are not contiguous.  The Palestinian Authority governs only the West Bank.  Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a political party, armed militia and terrorist organization.  The Palestinian Authority does not even control the entire territory of the West Bank since the major obstacle to creating a Palestinian state is the existence of 120 Israeli settlements and 102 "outposts", or minor settlements, in the West Bank as well as 12 settlements in East Jerusalem which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim as their capital.  These settlements/outposts are populated by approximately 400 thousand Israeli citizens and are under the protection of the Israeli military.

The ultimate solution to the geography of a future Palestinian state will have to be "land swaps" in which some of the settlements close to the original 1967 border become part of Israel and other lands currently part of Israel are ceded to the new Palestinian state.  This will be a long and arduous negotiating process but it currently makes "statehood" under any common sense or legal definition a practical impossibility at this time.

The unresolved issues in their totality simply don't fit into the "state to state" negotiation scheme supported by the Saudi and numerous other governments sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.  Who would govern the new state and thus negotiate with Israel as the new Authority?  A long time impediment to negotiations with Israel has been Hamas which advocates the destruction of Israel and carries out terrorist and rocket attacks on Israeli territory.  Would such behavior be the "foreign policy" of a new Palestinian state.  If so it would be an act of war.  Can a state share a capital with another state?  Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital.  The Palestinian Authority claims East Jerusalem, including the Israeli settlements, at their capital.

An on going issue in all negotiations has been the so called "right of return" of Palestinians and their descendants to their former property and locations in Israel prior to the 1948 war of independence.  Can a state demand that its citizens have a right to move to another state that doesn't want them?

Clearly statehood or quasi-statehood is premature to the resolution of all these issues through negotiation no matter how prolonged or painful.  The Obama Administration should not, and almost certainly will not, give in to pressure, most of which comes from states which represent unreliable relationships with the U.S., and U.S. foreign policy should not be constructed around public opinion polls, especially in foreign nations. 

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