Four veteran analysts and observers of Arab-Israeli politics offered their insights about Palestinian, Israeli and American strategies and reactions leading up to the September 20 Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.
On September 13, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, “September Crisis or Compromise: The Palestinians, the UN, and the Peace Process” with Nahum Barnea, chief columnist, Yedioth Ahronoth; Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine; and Robert Malley, Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group. Aaron David Miller, Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, moderated the event. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.
Miller opened the event by commenting on the unprecedented levels of excitement and expectation surrounding the UN Palestinian initiative planned for late September. While mentioning the spectrum of possible reactions to the situation, Miller emphasized that the decision by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to seek statehood at this time, in and of itself, reflects a type of dysfunction and breakdown of the bilateral peace process.
Ibish analyzed the connection between the PA’s decision to bring the issue of statehood to the multilateral forum of the UN and the breakdown of bilateral negotiations brokered by the US, often as the result of ever-increasing settlement activity. He noted that by choosing to sidestep negotiations, the PA is attempting to regain a sense of agency and legitimacy among Palestinians by means of their only remaining tactic, international diplomacy. He then addressed the consequences of transitioning the PLO from observer state status to non-member state status which would cut off direct US-Palestinian funding, thereby severely damaging the already depleted funds of the PA. Ibish emphasized that the US-Israeli reaction – more so than the actual demands of the PA and the UN’s response – will determine the course of daily life in the West Bank. He stressed the importance of maintaining funding and security as well as institution-building in the area.
Barnea provided the view from Israel and distinguished between the US’s and Israel’s real and non-real threats, used as deterrence, and pointing out the currently volatile atmosphere in the region. Additionally, the failure of the Israeli administration to properly address its breakdown in relations with Turkey and Egypt, according to Barnea, as well as the American administration highlights an overall collapse of Israeli diplomacy coupled with a refusal to admit responsibility for the collapse of regional as well as local cooperation.
Malley remarked on the overreaction by all sides – US, Palestinian, and Israeli – to this issue and its outcome, as well as the risks such reactions pose for each. He emphasized that this situation demands a Palestinian achievement or, at the very least, parameters to ensure that both sides will be able to pursue the two-state solution in the future. Malley suggested that the UN Resolution produced from this event mention the common security interests of the two parties as a basis for future negotiations.
Miller closed by observing that there is very little possibility of a conflict-ending agreement. At the same time, he noted it was critical not to give up on the desirability of a two-state solution.
By Tara Dewan-Czarnecki, Middle East Program