Why we are going to the UN

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The Palestine Liberation Organization has now officially decided to ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Leaving aside speculation as to whether this really will happen in September and what the consequences might be on the ground back home in Palestine and Israel, this is a good occasion to ask how we arrived at this juncture. The conventional wisdom that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s intransigent behavior has driven the Palestinians to adopt the international track is important, but hardly offers a complete explanation.

Here is an alternative and more balanced explanation. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ experience in direct final status negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the course of 2008 was an eye-opener for Abbas. He confronted the most far-reaching Israeli peace proposal yet offered concerning borders, refugees and holy places, yet rejected it. He knew that it was still far from his and his constituents’ core demands on these issues. In the ensuing months, he encountered a far-less forthcoming Israeli leader, Netanyahu, and a promising new American president, Barack Obama, who offered a spectacular opening to the Arab world. Abbas also had to deal with his own Fateh rank-and-file, which reacted to these developments by rejecting negotiations altogether.

Whether or not Abbas seized upon Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze knowing this could excuse him at the tactical level from negotiating with Netanyahu, we don’t know. But it was clear from remarks he made in early 2009 that Abbas believed Obama would "deliver" the Israelis without the need for further Palestinian concessions. He misread both the commitment and the capacity of the American president.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu, having consciously surrounded himself with the kind of hawkish, ultra-nationalist coalition he is comfortable with, read Obama more skillfully. He proceeded to offer symbolic gestures to the Americans while avoiding serious negotiations. He built settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem to ensure Palestinian alienation, while encouraging security and economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority to project a degree of pragmatism in Israeli and American eyes. He capitalized on the Republican mid-term victory in late 2010 to shore up his US support base. And he exploited the Arab revolutionary wave that began half a year ago to justify sitting tight–his natural default option–and outlasting Abbas while the settlements grow.

Abbas turned to the United Nations for three reasons. First, the successful state-building enterprise in the West Bank spearheaded by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad suggested such a dramatic step.

Second, it was clear that negotiations, even if and when they happened, would go nowhere. Netanyahu is not Olmert, and even Olmert would never have given Abbas the concessions he needed to accept an agreement. As for Obama, he would never apply the overwhelming pressure required to get Netanyahu–or, following a peace process-induced coalition crisis in Israel, Netanyahu’s successor–to make those concessions. In this sense, the UN track was Abbas’ natural default option.

Thus it is Abbas’ intransigence no less than Netanyahu’s that has brought us to the UN. Yet here the two part company, for–reason number three–Abbas appears genuinely to want progress toward a viable two-state solution while Netanyahu does not. Therefore, Abbas is leading the Palestinians to the UN in the full knowledge that in the Security Council or General Assembly he will be making the substantive concessions that his principles and his constituents will not allow him to make in bilateral talks.

In negotiating with Israel, Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat have always insisted that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". An agreement on borders is meaningless until and unless Israel accepts the right of return and full Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif and the rest of the holy basin in Jerusalem. In contrast, at the UN Abbas is prepared to accept international determination of the 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem as the defining parameters of a Palestinian state, with the rest left to further negotiations. Even if Israel and Palestine subsequently fail to agree on the right of return and the Temple Mount–and Abbas knows this is more than likely given the huge gap between the two sides’ core narratives regarding these unique issues–we nevertheless emerge from the UN with a two-state reality and a far more manageable conflict.

This, in my view, is the very attractive trade-off Abbas is offering Israel at the UN: a manageable two-state reality, albeit without an end-of-conflict agreement, in return for the 1967 lines and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Given the futility of negotiating under current circumstances, Israel and the US are foolish not to see the benefits of this trade-off. Rather than rejecting the Palestinian UN initiative, they should co-opt it and leverage it into a resolution that serves Israel’s vital needs in a two-state solution as well as those of the Palestinians.

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