Daniel Levy has a post up on Foreign Policy that would be funny if it was not so depressing. Levy describes the American effort to pull some wool over the eyes of the rest of the Middle East Quartet (the EU, UN and Russia) concerning the Palestinian effort to win a UNGA resolution in September. Noting that the United States has no interest in allowing Palestine to bring its case to the UN, Levy describes how the White House worked with Israel to craft a mélange of Obama’s word, including speeches both endorsed and not endorsed by the quartet, and tried to pass off the document as a reiteration of Quartet endorsed positions. Unfortunately, the document included several pieces that directly contradicts European and Quartet positions. Moreover, Levy was adamant in his insistence that Washington worked closely with Jerusalem to construct the document, saying that the White House made sure that the document was up to Israeli standards and that “Jerusalem’s bar for acceptability has all the moderation of a Voldemort.”
While the most interesting part of the post may have been the intrigue of Washington’s attempt to fool the Quartet, the most important issue may have been Levy’s attempt to debunk the widespread myths about September’s UN vote. Contrary to what many say, a UNGA vote on changes little on the ground in Palestine. At most, it sets a diplomatic precedent for the future. From Levy:
No a U.N. vote will not in practical terms deliver a sovereign Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal and de-occupation. Nor will Israelis instantly be hauled in front of various international legal bodies as a consequence of a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution. Several other steps would have to take place subsequent to a U.N. vote for either of those things to happen and those do not flow seamlessly, one from the other.
No the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly is not an inappropriate venue for discussing or passing resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does doing so contravene previous agreements signed between the parties. It is hard to imagine a more relevant or obvious matter for the U.N. to act on. One does not have to get very far in reading the charter of the U.N. to understand that U.N. member states who are signatories to that charter would be derelict in their duties if they refused to act on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Article 1 of that charter is about maintaining international peace and security; Article 2 is about the right of peoples to self-determination; and the list goes on. More specifically, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, the idea of partition to two states is a product of the U.N. (more specifically Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question), enshrined in UNGA Resolution 181, and it was U.N. recognition that crucially established the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The existing panoply of Israeli-Palestinian agreements from the past two decades say nothing about barring any action at the U.N. and do not even explicitly refer to Palestinian statehood, so that any recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N. cannot be in contravention of those agreements.
While Netanyahu’s amen corner may point to a clause in the Oslo agreements setting out that “neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of permanent status negotiations,” they tend to conveniently forget about this when it comes, for instance, to the daily Israeli acts contravening this same clause, notably relentless settlement expansion. So the idea that a U.N. resolution — even one recognizing Palestine — is inadmissible given existing signed commitments, is no more than an Israeli diplomatic sleight of hand parroted by American officials and assorted hangers on. Thankfully, there are still international actors with a somewhat more grounded understanding of the Oslo process and international legality. In fact, none other than the initiators of the Oslo process, the Norwegians themselves. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre included the following in a statement issued earlier this week, subsequent to his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:
“It is Norway’s view, however, that it is legitimate and not in contradiction with a process of negotiation, to turn to the U.N. to promote a common approach on the part of the international community and respect for the international rule of law. In light of the continuing deadlock in the negotiations, the Palestinians cannot be denied the right to approach the U.N.”
No the Palestinians cannot realistically circumvent an American veto and become a member state of the U.N. — and they know this. The theoretical option of pursuing a two-thirds majority at the General Assembly and then using the “Uniting for Peace” framework to get around the Security Council, and therefore the American veto, is not something the Palestinians will pursue. At most, they will pursue a membership application in order to set down a marker for the future, maintain a degree of drama and attention surrounding the vote, and to heighten American discomfort at its inability to pursue a coherent or credible Israel-Palestine policy.
Finally, the subtext of going to the U.N. is not about creating conditions for a new round of violence and a third intifada — something the current Palestinian leadership has no interest in and are themselves threatened by. The likelihood or otherwise of violent instability in the Occupied Territories is influenced by a number of variables, among them economic conditions and Israel’s possible withholding of Palestinian tax revenues, Palestinian ability to sustain non-violent approaches to mobilization, the intensity of Israeli provocations, and the extent of Palestinian frustration. The latter could be more fueled by a Palestinian retreat from U.N. action and a return to meaningless negotiations or by a failure at the U.N. to overwhelmingly endorse Palestinian rights than by a successful, symbolic win at the U.N., even if that does not translate the morning after into new freedoms on the ground.
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