September 20 is the day the PLO has targeted for submitting to the United Nations its request for state recognition. It is still not clear how that request will be worded and whether it will be submitted first to the Security Council or directly to the General Assembly. But despite this lack of clarity, or perhaps because of it, both Palestinians and Israelis are actively preparing on three fronts for some sort of confrontation.
One front is diplomatic: the West Bank-based Palestinian diplomatic establishment is busily signing up prospective supporters in the UN, while Israeli diplomacy is focused on recruiting a bloc that will oppose the Palestinians in the international forum.
A second front is on the ground. There are reports of Palestinian preparations to celebrate a UN decision with mass marches that, given the lay of the land in the West Bank, could deliberately or inadvertently target settlers, settlements, the security fence and crossings into Jerusalem. Israel has countered with accelerated training and deployment for managing mass demonstrations in the hope of containing Palestinian protests while sustaining minimal international diplomatic damage.
A third front appears to have opened last Thursday with the attack by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli civilians near the Egyptian border with southern Israel. The attack and Israel’s response snowballed into a crisis between Israel and Egypt and a new mini-war in and around the Gaza Strip. Both distract attention from the September UN campaign and could still, in a worst-case development, derail it. This could be precisely one of the objectives of the most extreme Gaza- and Damascus-based Islamist organizations and their state sponsors that catalyzed the crisis and that have little sympathy for the PLO’s UN effort.
It is impossible to predict how the escalation of and interaction among these three fronts will develop in the course of the coming month. Are we headed for a general deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian relations against a backdrop of Palestinian triumph, or for a series of non-events that fizzle and lead nowhere?
The latter outcome would be a pity, because Ramallah’s UN move could actually produce something useful, despite Israeli and American mismanagement of the Palestinian challenge. Neither Washington nor Jerusalem appears to recognize that, in taking his case for statehood to the UN, Abbas is effectively agreeing to a partial settlement of his final status claims that could be highly advantageous for the cause of a stable two-state solution. Abbas is asking the UN for a territorial solution: a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with its capital in Jerusalem. He is not asking the UN to rule on the right of return or the "ownership" of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem–the real "deal breakers" when the two parties sit down to direct negotiations.
When Abbas returns to the negotiating table as president of a newly-recognized state of Palestine, he will be representing in the best case the Arab residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. He will no longer be speaking to Israel on behalf of a liberation organization that represents primarily the Palestinian diaspora. The border issues mandated by recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines will be far easier to negotiate on a state-to-state basis than they are now when they are linked to the more intractable final status issues championed by the PLO. Indeed, all outstanding issues will be easier to negotiate between two states.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presumably ignores these advantages of the current Palestinian approach to the UN because he cannot acquiesce in either the 1967 borders or a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. He is not a partner for substantive negotiations either before or after the UN in September. As for Washington, internal electoral considerations will apparently continue to shunt aside any serious initiative regarding the Palestinian issue for at least 15 more months.
So we are not talking about near-term negotiations. But once serious talks are again enjoined, the Palestinian UN initiative could have the effect of altering the parameters of those negotiations for the better. By now, it should be clear that the Oslo negotiating framework has exhausted its usefulness. Two serious attempts to negotiate final status issues, in 2000 and 2008, failed because the parties came face-to-face with the unbridgeable narrative gaps dividing them on the refugee and holy places issues. Hence any new attempt involving the PLO to resolve all final status issues together under Oslo, now or in 18 months, dooms all the issues to failure.
Better to leverage the Palestinian UN initiative into a win-win resolution that gives the Palestinians a state based on the 1967 borders and balances it with recognition of legitimate Israeli needs and interests. Only in this way can UN recognition of a Palestinian state produce a positive and useful alternative framework for future negotiations.