Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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Palestine’s Muddled Statehood Strategy

by Robert M. Danin
November 28, 2012

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas holds up a copy of the letter seeking statehood he had just delivered to United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon (Segar/Courtesy Reuters).


If all goes according to plan, the UN General Assembly will vote on Thursday or soon after to accord Palestine “non-member observer state status” in the United Nations. According to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization who initiated the effort, it is intended to enhance the Palestinians’ leverage in future negotiations with Israel. Writing in the New York Times on May 16, 2011, Abbas explained his rationale: “Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another, and not as a vanquished people.” The fundamental problem with Abbas’ approach is that rather than encourage such talks, his U.N. gambit is more likely to delay, if not undermine, the prospects for negotiations that would lead to genuine Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel anytime in the immediate future.

The Palestinians’ approach at the United Nations sends two conflicting messages at the same time. On the one hand, Abbas claims he wishes to cooperate with Israel and resolve Israeli-Palestinian differences peacefully. All he is trying to do, he says, is gain some negotiating leverage. Yet at the same time, the Palestinians are conveying the message that their efforts are a punitive unilateral act designed to confront Israel, rather than cooperate with it down the road. This is dangerous for the Palestinians, given that Israel possesses a preponderance of power and controls the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

The confrontational perception was fortified in the past few days when the Palestinians reportedly rejected U.S. and Israeli efforts to temper the resolution and denude it of the one thing Israelis fear most and Palestinians deny as its intent: the ability to challenge Israel and individual Israelis in international fora, most notably the International Criminal Court (ICC). For months, the Palestinians had said they were willing to provide assurances that they would not challenge Israel in the ICC. But when asked in recent days, the Palestinians refused to alter the text to state that they would not approach the ICC to file charges against Israeli officials. Instead, the Palestinians suggested they would provide an oral guarantee that they would not file changes at the ICC for the next six months. Rather than provide solace, this Palestinian offer only reinforced the sense that the statehood bid is a way to confront Israelis with punitive actions if a settlement is not reached according to a Palestinian-imposed timeline.

In the face of such an approach, and coming as Israel moves into the heat of an election campaign, the effect of the U.N. resolution will be to harden Israeli prime minister Netanyahu’s attitudes towards concessions to the Palestinians, not encourage them. It will likely trigger Israeli punitive measures, such as withholding Palestinian tax remittances, constrained movement and access within the West Bank, and possibly unilateral Israeli moves to annex West Bank territory. At a minimum, we can expect accelerated Israeli settlement activity.

The United States is also likely to be very unhappy with President Abbas when the UN votes. President Obama has urged the Palestinians for over a year not to push a vote at the United Nations. Indeed, Obama called Abbas on November 11, just days after the U.S. elections, to ask the Palestinian president to give the American president time to prepare his policies for a second term. Abbas clearly and inauspiciously rebuffed him in a gesture that will no doubt figure into Obama’s calculations for his upcoming Middle East policies. Moreover, the Congress is likely to suspend U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

Yet Abbas sees no viable alternative in front of him. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who three and a half years ago professed his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel in his heralded Bar-Illan University speech, never offered a clear strategy or plan for moving forward. President Obama, in May 2011, laid out a vision for a peace agreement delineating Palestine’s borders and Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements. Yet rather than pursue that vision, the president launched no diplomatic effort to realize it.

After the United Nations vote, Abbas will presumably return to his West Bank headquarters where the realities will be exactly as he left them: Israel occupies all of Jerusalem and the majority of the West Bank. Nothing that happens in New York will have changed that. The Palestinians will have forfeited their 65-year long moral claim as that of a stateless people. Now, they will have a virtual state, but not one where it counts–on the ground.

Given all the downsides of pursuing this statehood gambit, why is Abbas moving forward with this less than airtight strategy? Clearly, he calculates that the costs of inaction are even greater than all the moves’ inherent risks. With Hamas having just confronted Israel with short and medium term missiles, backing down from the diplomatic effort he has pursued over the year and a half, could be politically suicidal. Moreover, as he enters his twilight years as the Palestinian’s leader, he no doubt seeks some sort of legacy achievement. Thus, a symbolic victory in New York, albeit one that changes nothing on the ground in Palestine, is still better than no action at all. Such an accomplishment is likely to be pyrrhic and short lived. The challenge then will be to prevent the action in New York from further damaging the prospects for a more coherent approach that could lead to a lasting peace between Israel and a genuine Palestinian state.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Deborah

    They don’t need the state that the US and Israel have in mind for them. The Palestinian struggle has moved beyond the ‘two state solution,” as most commentators have come to regretfully realized. Palestinians and Israeli Jews are in one state called Israel. The question now “from the ground up,” as the author precisely notes is what counts most, is what will be the relationship between these two groups that live on one land–apartheid? binationalism? confederation? one secular state? For better or worst that is the ONLY question that has to be resolved. The discussion of political calculations of Mahmoud Abbas as is Abbas’ strategy are all beside the point now. The PA has recognized too late that the US will deliver them a ‘state” which is basically some warmed over and bad version of the Allon Plan, which was never going to be viable anyway.

  • Posted by Omar Nashashibi

    I second the “muddled” but would like to emphasise that the present situation is the natural outgrowth of two major factoes:
    1_ Palestininan especially Arafat’s leadership failure to act at the right time.
    Pre OSLO there were MORE states recognizing the PLO as unique Palestinian representative than recognising ISRAEL.
    That was the time to act.
    Dismal and fruitless as OSLO is and was foreseen to be by many at the time it put an end to that era.
    So the first reason is:

    2-The UNKEPT USA&CO promises that they will do something; which was infantile verging on the moronic for the leadership to have any faith in.
    And the second reason is:
    To have had any faith in USA&Co promises

    NOW it is late and severly constrained but BETTER LATE than NEVER!


    The author fails to understand what the people root for during a football game or soccer game is nothing of consequence, but an emotional one. This has nothing to do with logistics. It has to do with emotion. If every person on earth had a doctorate in logistics the vote would make no sense. Alas, the common people, the common vote, and the common man would have you believe the gesture is largely a symbolic one and that is worth its weight in gold. This aint about logistics Jack. Its about emotions. People are ruled by their emotions and this is a major victory. Its a Roar, a Rally, a great victory. (And all those who oppose that are feeding primordial urges as to why).

  • Posted by James Pearse

    Reading this article makes you think for all their education, CFR analysts never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Much of what he did, especially very early on was logistically poor, emotionally rich. Back then analysts got it very wrong, in terms of what was really going on. CFR focuses a lot on logistics, but fails to understand emotions in motion as catalysts for change. Human beings are emotional creatures. CFR should pay more attention to what emotion has done in the past, beyond the realms of logic. This has nothing to do with logistics. It has to do with winning the crowd. CFR is lacking in its analytical skills.

  • Posted by Tanja Venstad

    Mr. Danin,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. The sheer volume of information on this issue can often invoke fatigue, but I found myself very engaged while reading this. As a student of international relations, I frequent your blog and I have to say that this is one of my favorite posts of yours. That being said, I have a couple questions about what you wrote. This issue of potential action by the Palestinians in the ICC is of major concern of Israel, so should the Palestinians file charges against either the state of Israel or individual Israelis, what do you think would happen? What kind of response would we see from Israel and the United States? I understand that it can be difficult to make predictions about things that involve so many actors (and therefore a variety of motivations), but I would be interested to hear some of your thoughts on the matter. The move by the Palestinians to provide only an oral guarantee that they will not file charges for the next six months does not convince me that they will not pursue this course of action. I think it is very likely that the Palestinians will begin to use the ICC to file charges against Israel, especially if Netanyahu hardens his stance toward Palestine and institutes “punitive measures”, as you mentioned above. The most likely scenario I envision is this sort of “tit-for-tat” that will hinder the negotiation process and delay a peaceful settlement even longer.

    Although the immediate actions of the Palestinians in the ICC are important, I think another pressing issue that you mentioned is whether or not the United States will suspend aid to the Palestinians. Due to the way the U.S. Congress is now divided, I think it is likely that much of the aid will be terminated. But I would also like to ask you for your take on the various reports that the U.S. will cut funding to programs like UNESCO, which treat the Palestinians as an equal member? Do you think this is likely? I am wondering if this consideration factored into the General Assembly’s decision. If I were a UN member-state, and I was told that the U.S. would potentially stop funding any program or agency that Palestine was allowed to join, I would worry about being asked to make up the difference. I understand your point that Abbas may view this symbolic victory in New York as “better than no action at all”, yet I fear that that his calculations are incorrect. I have to agree with what Elliot Abrams wrote in Pressure Points that, “nothing so dramatizes the fact that ‘Palestine’ is not a state than this UN vote.” This vote was purely symbolic and did nothing to change the realities on the ground, which Abbas will soon figure out, if he hasn’t already.

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