reflections

The Push for Palestinian Statehood and its Consequences

9 MINS READSep 23, 2011 | 05:52 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, the same day he has promised to submit to the United Nations a letter of intent for Palestine to become the international organization's 194th member. He plans to return to the West Bank on Saturday. The Palestinians will still not have their own state by then, nor will they have one after the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) votes on the application, whenever that may be. Demonstrations will break out in the Palestinian territories (and the rest of the Arab world) as a result of this process, and they have the potential to become severe. For months leading up to the current gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the statehood bid has been causing headaches for Israel and the United States in particular. But it has also created stress for the ruling military council in Egypt and the leadership of Islamist militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. None of these four actors want to see Abbas and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) herald in the creation of an independent Palestine at the moment, and all for different reasons. Israel is obviously opposed to a Palestinian bid for U.N. statehood. The first reason is simple: Israel does not want to be left out of the process, as this would deny it leverage in negotiations. If there is ever to be a Palestinian state, Israel would prefer to be integral to the process that leads to its formation. The second reason is also fairly straightforward: it will create the possibility for instability in the Palestinian territories. Israel has not had to deal with a Palestinian intifada in more than a decade, and it would rather not do so now, especially given the instability elsewhere in the region. The United States is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that has said publicly that it will use its veto to kill a Palestinian request for statehood. Israel is quite secure in the knowledge that for now, there will be no Palestinian state recognized by the United Nations, but it fears the reaction within the Palestinian territories and the wider region following Abbas' delivery of the letter of intent. (It is inevitable that Palestinian protests will take place; it's merely a matter of when, and how severe.) The fact that the PNA has said that it will not place pressure on the U.N. Security Council to vote on the matter quickly is good for Israel as it indicates that the PNA is not seeking to create an immediate crisis. Nonetheless, Israel sees a crisis as a distinct possibility in the future. The United States is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that has said publicly that it will use its veto to kill a Palestinian request for statehood. Its position is based on the domestic political constraints placed on U.S. President Barack Obama. He came into office with the professed goal of helping bring about an independent Palestinian state before the end of his first term, but he soon discovered the pitfalls of wading into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. According to some polls, the United States' image in the Islamic world has sunk to a level below the nadir of the Bush administration. Obama is now seeking re-election, and knows the importance of securing the support of the Israel lobby. With the campaign season around the corner, he is not prepared to risk taking the Palestinians' side on an issue of this magnitude. In his address before the General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama said, "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations." If it comes to a vote in the UNSC, the United States will follow through with its vow to veto. Obama would prefer that it not reach that point, however, as the resulting demonstrations in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the Arab world would then take on a distinctly anti-American tone. He has thus tried in vain to convince Abbas to avoid the UNSC altogether by seeking to merely elevate Palestine's position in the United Nations to a status that does not quite reach that of official statehood. This would require Abbas to apply for a resolution in the wider U.N. General Assembly, where the Palestinians enjoy widespread support, and which would not put the United States in a position to block a full membership application. Fatah's biggest adversary is not Israel, but Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip. Abbas rejected the U.S. proposal to eschew full statehood due to the domestic political constraints he, too, is under. Abbas represents the Palestinian National Authority, but is also the leader of Fatah, the Palestinian organization that controls the West Bank. Fatah's biggest adversary is not Israel, but Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip. Western nations, by and large, do not want to deal with Hamas, due to the group's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, and its proclivity to use violence to express that view. Fatah has more support than Hamas in the eyes of most of the representatives of the Palestinian people. Fatah has also been able to develop additional credibility in the eyes of the Arab world during the same process, as Arab states are all under pressure from their citizens to support a push for Palestinian statehood. Abbas cannot bend to outside pressure at this point and turn back. He has put too much time and political capital into the "September U.N. vote." If Fatah abandoned the push now, it would be risking political suicide and a complete loss of legitimacy at home. Few people — in the Palestinian territories or elsewhere — actually think they can obtain statehood in this manner, but it is about being seen as standing up for the rights of Palestinians at this point, not actual statehood. This is especially important for Fatah, because for years Hamas has railed against the group for being too quick to compromise with Israel and the West. Hamas' stance on this issue places its interests in line with Israel, which is ironic and slightly awkward for an Islamist militant group which has stated its commitment to Israel's destruction. Hamas opposes the U.N. bid for one simple reason: It will benefit its archrival Fatah. Hamas' stance on this issue places its interests in line with Israel, which is ironic and slightly awkward for an Islamist militant group which has stated its commitment to Israel's destruction. This places Hamas in a difficult situation. Clearly it cannot be seen as agreeing with Israel to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. Hamas has thus hedged its public position on the U.N. bid. The head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said Monday that while Hamas opposes the bid, it would never do anything to harm the aspirations of the Palestinian people. On Thursday, however, another Gaza-based Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar, said that if Palestine were to be recognized at the United Nations, it would mean Hamas could no longer fight Israel, implying that this alone was a reason to oppose the bid. Hamas' legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters lies in its determination to fight Israel. The risk it takes in standing by and watching Fatah push forward with the U.N. application is that it allows its rival to be seen as doing the same thing — fighting Israel — via diplomacy. Hamas may feel that this is actually a good thing, as the inevitable failure of the Abbas government to actually come away with a Palestinian state creates a potentially embarrassing situation for Hamas' rivals. On the other hand, it could also decide to seriously complicate the initiative by doing what it often does: launching attacks against Israel, either directly or by proxy. Hamas' main aim is to prevent Fatah from taking the mantle of Palestinian resistance to Israel, but this fact does not necessarily dictate how the group will respond. The military council currently ruling Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), does not want a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations because of how it could potentially affect its own population. The SCAF is committed to its decades-old peace treaty with Israel for strategic reasons, and it will not abandon the alliance. This goes against the expectations for change held by many Egyptians, who are increasingly realizing that there was never a true revolution in the country. The Israel issue, though, is an emotional one for the Egyptian people. Most Egyptians do not like Israel and loathe the fact that their government is willing to entertain such good relations with it. The anti-Israel mood in the country is growing, too, especially after the members of Egypt's security forces were killed during an Israeli raid in the Sinai following the Aug. 18 Eilat attacks and the subsequent attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 9. If and when Palestinian demonstrations break out in Israel as a result of the U.N. push, there will likely be demonstrations in Egypt as well. This will put additional pressure on the ruling military council. Although the SCAF has been able to handle the demonstrations in the country fairly well up to now, the military's concern is that this issue could galvanize the Islamist segment of society, which thus far has not been exceptionally active in the protests. Even worse, the SCAF fears that this could be an issue that unites the Islamist and non-Islamist opposition, resulting in much larger demonstrations than it has seen before.

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