For the past several months Israelis and their foreign friends regarded the annual September meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) with particular dread. While the UN gathering is often a source of concern, many believe that this year’s conclave will be the most calamitous for the Jewish state in decades. The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) plan to ask the UN to approve a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state caused something akin to panic among Israelis, especially those in the diplomatic corps.
In March 2011, Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted that the UN push would produce a “diplomatic tsunami” against Israel and the phrase stuck in the public mind as the harbinger of untold woe for a nation that is still fighting attempts to delegitimize it even after 63 years of existence. The notion of the General Assembly ratifying Palestinian independence in the territory of the 1967 lines conjures up a vision of an Israel that is totally isolated.
Yet it is important for friends of Israel to avoid overreacting. While this struggle will not be without its costs and is an unhelpful distraction from the real problems of the Middle East, the UN vote presents a far greater peril to the PA leadership that is proposing this idea than it does to Israel.
All Talk, No State
The first point that must be established in any discussion of the Palestinians’ UN initiative is that the General Assembly by itself cannot legally create a new and independent nation or a full-fledged UN member state; only the Security Council can. And with the United States’ promise to exercise its veto, the outcome of the PA’s bid for full member status at the UN is preordained.
Though President Obama has been demonstrably less friendly to Israel than any of his recent predecessors and has engaged in needless fights with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throughout his presidency, he knows the Palestinian initiative is an attempt to bypass U.S. sponsored diplomacy as well as a threat to any hopes of achieving a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Though the administration is loathe to use its veto in this manner, the Palestinians left it no choice since failing to do so would unleash a set of circumstances that would be just as harmful to U.S. influence in the region as it would be to Israel.
To put it bluntly, all that will result will be talk of a Palestinian state, nothing more. The General Assembly has no power to create such a state and cannot enforce its will. Nor can it conjure up a civil society, responsible institutions, or a healing of the split between the two Palestinian factions—Fatah and Hamas—that separately rule the West Bank and Gaza.
Little Impact on Israel
Beyond the humiliation of the UN vote, the question remains, what tangible harm will such a vote cause? The vote will not make Israel’s attempts to maintain relations with those Arab states with whom it had made peace any easier. Nor will it aid efforts to ward off the wave of anti-Zionist and, frankly, anti-Semitic opinion in Europe. The “diplomatic tsunami” of which everyone speaks will be real but the specific impact of the UN vote will be limited.
The fallout from the “Arab Spring” revolts against authoritarian rulers has made Israel’s already shaky ties with moderate Arab nations even less reliable. The UN vote will certainly worsen relations with Egypt as well as with Jordan, Tunisia, and the rest of the region, but it will not constitute a significant change for an already difficult situation.
Similarly, the vote will lower Israel’s standing in Europe. But as is the case with the Middle East, it is hard to see how much actual damage will be done since the Jewish state is already treated as a pariah by European intellectuals and the media there. The vote will encourage the movement to boycott Israel, but it is not as if those groups that already believe Zionism is illegitimate will be any further emboldened. The same is true of any possible legal fallout from the UN vote. International or European courts are already inclined to treat the Jewish presence in the territories as illegal. It is not clear that a purely symbolic motion by the General Assembly will worsen an already worrisome trend.
A UN vote will have some impact on Israel’s relations with the United States. Certainly the Obama administration will not be brought closer to Israel by the necessity of having to threaten to veto a Palestinian state resolution in the Security Council. Washington will resent the abuse it will suffer as a result of the stance it was forced to take. While there will be some who will say that it could have been avoided by further Israeli concessions that would have brought the PA back to the table, such an argument is nonsense. The whole point of the exercise was to avoid negotiations, not to strengthen the Palestinian position in talks. Any tension created by the veto will soon be forgotten if only because both Israel and the United States will be too distracted by the inevitable crises that will follow.
Heavy Consequences for the PA
It is a serious mistake to imagine that the main impact of a September vote will be on Israel. It is the Palestinians who stand to suffer most from a measure they may have thought would benefit them.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas may have initially believed he was being clever when he decided to snub President Obama’s invitation to return to peace talks with Israel and take his case to as sympathetic a forum as the UN. But although Abbas must certainly have been aware that his move was merely a ploy to evade negotiations with Israel and the necessity to at all costs avoid actually making peace, his people seemed to take it a bit more seriously. The prospect of a UN vote on statehood has raised expectations among Palestinians that September might actually give them full independence along the 1967 lines as well as improve their lot.
This has set the stage not only for a vast outpouring of frustration when the Palestinians realize that nothing has changed. This could seriously undermine the already tenuous legitimacy that Abbas’ Fatah government possesses. Since the PA has established a false narrative that claims that Palestinian attempts at conciliation with Israel were rejected—a palpable lie since it was Yasser Arafat that rejected Israeli offers of a Palestinian state in 2000 and 2001 and Abbas himself who did so in 2008—the inevitable disappointment that will follow the UN vote will only strengthen the position of Fatah’s Hamas rivals who have always deprecated even the pretense of diplomacy that Abbas embraced.
This is the great irony of the PA’s UN gambit. Fatah began this campaign thinking that such a measure would discomfit Israel at no cost to their cause. But though Israel will take a beating in the court of international public opinion following the vote, it is the PA that will suffer most.
The possibility of a post-September intifada is something that Israelis are taking seriously. But no more so than the PA, which is taking even more stringent measures seeking to hold off an outbreak of violence that Fatah and its auxiliaries will not be able to contain or control. A third intifada will do no good for a West Bank whose economy has still not completely recovered from the devastating effects of the war of terrorist attrition that Arafat launched in 2000. It will also erase any progress that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has made toward improving the quality of life and the governance of the West Bank.
The one party that stands to benefit from a post-September conflagration is Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since it seized power there in a bloody coup in 2006. Under Hamas, Gaza has become the true face of Palestinian independence since, unlike Fatah in the West Bank, the terrorist group’s power is untrammeled. Though many Gazans resent its Islamist rule, Hamas has enjoyed the backing of its allies—Iran and Syria—who have helped the group re-arm after its defeat during Israel’s December 2008 counter offensive. It is also the pet of many of Israel’s international critics who have bought into the myth that Israel’s blockade of the Hamas state has caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Though this terrorist enclave retains the power to launch attacks on Israel whenever it chooses (as it proved again in August when it followed up the assault on targets in Eilat with a barrage of missiles that hit cities in southern Israel), Hamas represents a greater threat to the PA than to the Jewish state. Most Palestinians might prefer the more secular Fatah to the Islamists of Hamas, but the latter’s seeming greater devotion to shedding Jewish blood has increased its legitimacy in the upside down ethos of Palestinian politics. The PA takes the possibility of a Hamas assault on its perch in the West Bank seriously. Even more to the point, Abbas knows that the only thing keeping Fatah in power there is not his popularity, but the Israel Defense Forces’ retaining effective control of that territory.
By opening up the possibility that a general outbreak of violence will ensue after the UN vote, the PA has created a situation that may benefit Hamas more than the cause of Palestinian nationalism. The certain failure of their initiative will undermine their domestic political position and perhaps lead to violence that Hamas will exploit. The endgame of a third intifada will not be a Palestinian state or a reinvigorated peace process, but a crippled Fatah that will be more dependent than ever on Israel and a strengthened Hamas.
Though Israel will be battered in the UN debate, Fatah may be about to fall into a trap that it set for itself.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com