This past week witnessed the culmination of the Palestinian political move to the United Nations. We have seen key speeches by US President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in addition to the submission of the Palestinian application for state membership to the United Nations and, finally, a statement by the Middle East Quartet.
These speeches and positions have clarified the marked differences in positions between these parties. On one hand, President Abbas was adamant that the blockage in bilateral negotiations, stalled by Israel for the purpose of expanding illegal Israeli settlements in the territories, is no longer acceptable. In this next phase, he asked for two things: first, international engagement and supervision for any future negotiations and second, a resumption of peace talks without settlement activity and with agreed-on terms of reference that include adherence to the borders of 1967, with accepted modifications. On the other hand, Netanyahu insisted on resuming negotiations with settlement construction ongoing and with no commitment to any terms of reference, i.e., business as usual.
The polarization of positions between the two parties was starker than ever before because both focused on their different narratives. President Abbas put the current conflict in perspective by referring to the uprooting of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 and 1967 and said that the two-state solution that he is demanding is a compromise. In contrast, Netanyahu emphasized the historic and religious rights of the Jews to this land.
Objectively, Abbas’ speech was more convincing simply because it was based on international legality and the world consensus advocating two states along the 1967 borders. Netanyahu, on the other hand, seemed to be out of convincing arguments, to the extent that he resorted to some that made no sense. The one that attracted the most attention was his argument that Israel cannot leave the West Bank because Israel is geographically very narrow. He said that, while crossing the US by plane takes six hours, crossing Israel takes three minutes. The obvious problem here is that adding the West Bank to the width of Israel would add about a minute to travel time, which in today’s terms is completely insignificant.
These differences, however, were quite expected. What came as a striking surprise to listeners, however, was the speech of President Obama, who seemed to have swallowed the Israeli narrative completely. Obama abandoned basic aspects of the conflict by avoiding any reference to Israeli illegal settlement activities and any reference to the borders, two issues that he once had clear positions about.
The United Nations was the stage for international efforts, especially by Europe and the United States, to convince the Palestinian leadership not to submit an application for membership to the Security Council. The Americans were promising to veto the move, which would embarrass some countries in Europe that wanted Palestinians to have an achievement in the UN but didn’t want to openly break with US policy. These countries were trying to convince the Palestinian leadership that, since there was no chance for any achievement in the Security Council, a move to the General Assembly would allow for a stronger alliance without embarrassment.
It seems that the price the Palestinians have been made to pay by neglecting this advice and going to the Security Council was the Quartet statement made on Friday, which calls for a resumption of negotiations with no reference to borders, settlement activity or Israel’s demand that Palestinians accept the "Jewishness" of Israel. That puts the Palestinian leadership before a serious test: accepting this Quartet invitation will contradict the very clear and popular positions PLO leaders have been taking. Rejecting it, however, will put the Palestinian side at odds with the positions not only of Israel and the United States, but rather with Quartet allies, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.