Implications of the veto: Why rejecting Palestinian statehood is bad for the US and Israel
RUSI Analysis, 1 Sep 2011
The expected veto of Palestine's request for statehood in September could spur impetus amongst Palestinians towards a third intifada, if not catalyse it. This potentially has serious implications for the United States and Israel who, in light of the Middle East's current volatile climate, may be better off accepting the imminent bid.
By Magdalena Delgado for RUSI.org
The United Nations partition plan of 1947 called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on the Middle Eastern territory then held under a British Mandate. Nearly 65 years later, while Israel is an internationally recognised country, the Palestinians are still waiting.
Peace negotiations addressing the Israeli-Palestinian impasse have stalled since their very inception. Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas' imminent request for Palestinian statehood was last endeavoured by his predecessor Yasser Arafat in September 2000. Evidently, Arafat's declaration of a Palestinian state never happened. It was discouraged by American and Israeli leaders and was lobbied against in the US congress before its intended manifestation on the grounds that '[...] any Palestinian state should be the result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, not the result of unilateral action of either one side or the other.' This phrase formed a basis for the 'Unilateral Palestinian Statehood Disapproval Act of 2000' and it is reiterated today by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various US delegates in order to substantiate their opposition to Abbas' plans. As such, the tone is set for September's Security Council session: the United States will veto a unilateral Palestinian request for statehood on the grounds that peace should be obtained through direct negotiations.
If the Palestinian Authority, in order to avoid a US veto, takes its statehood request directly to the General Assembly where the two-third majority that is necessary for the its implementation predictably will favour it, such recognition will be little more than a pyrrhic victory. Unless Israel and the United States form part of the consensus, the Israeli-Palestinian impasse will remain stagnant both in terms of peace negotiations and facts on the ground.
For Palestinians in the West Bank, a stagnant peace process means progressing construction of the separation barrier and a continued proliferation of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. For Palestinians living in Gaza it implies that besiegement of the Gaza Strip will continue beyond its fifth year.
More than for these practical issues, the stalling peace process has implications for the collective social psychology of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. In this respect, it forms part of a broader imposition of inequality and dependency, of which callous living conditions are but reminders.
Prospects for a riotous future
If the Arab Spring has achieved anything, it is attesting that a collective manifestation of public discontent can destabilise the political status quo. Palestinians in the occupied territories are no strangers to such manifestations, as the intifadas of 1987 and 2000 testify. Much like today's unfolding revolts in the Middle East, Palestinian intifadas were expressions of pent-up social frustration, triggered by relatively minor but nonetheless symbolic actions. In the case of 1987's intifada the catalyst was a traffic accident, rumoured to be a deliberate act, in which four residents of a Gazan refugee camp were killed by an Israeli driver. A visit by former Likud-leader Ariel Sharon and his delegation to Temple Mount, Islam's third holiest site, served as a catalyst for the second intifada. The massive upheavals that followed Sharon's visit were intensified by the preceding failed peace negotiations at the Camp David summit that fell short of establishing a Palestinian state.
Today's social and political climate in the Palestinian territories mirrors that prior to the second intifada in particular: a population resentful of prolonged social injustice galvanised by the prospect of statehood declaration. Enthusiastic reactions in May 2011 amongst Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks and their expected leverage in peace negotiations is an indication that Palestinians are invigorated by the prospect of statehood and prepared to unify socially to achieve it, as they were during the intifadas. Their impetus is furthered by the context of the Arab Spring. A crucial aspect that distinguishes Palestinian intifadas from recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (and possibly more countries in the months to come) is their failure to achieve the uprising's primary goal. Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrators ousted their autocratic leaders following 28 and 18 days of civil unrest, respectively. Both countries are yet to experience a transition to democracy, however their citizens can draw on those achievements for motivation to push for further reform. Palestinians have no such triumph to celebrate. While this could essentially be a discouraging factor, it is more likely to have the opposite effect and rather add to the frustration that clearly presides amongst them. It is not unfeasible to imagine that, in the current climate, a symbolic event, whether taking the form of a US veto in September or a more trifling one, could trigger a third intifada.
Not only are conditions for such an uprising prevalent within the territories; they are rife internationally as well. Pro-Palestinian sentiment is prevalent in Arab societies and, while most demonstrators are focused on ensuring their own national demands, Palestinian injustice does and will factor into their general discontent - if not due to genuine sympathy towards Palestinians then due to the larger injustice towards Arabs that the Israeli-Palestinian predicament is viewed as a symbol of. The raising of thousands of Palestinians flags during Egyptian protests testifies this, as do chants for Palestine amongst protesters during demonstrations in Tunis.
With popular will in the Arab world now exerting a larger influence on the region's politics, this could mean more diplomatic support of a third intifada from Arab governments. Moreover, pro-Palestinian sentiment exists beyond the Arab world and much more so than during the previous intifadas. The media plays a huge part in this development, but perhaps no more so than a general politicisation of Western societies that has resulted from events such as the Iraq war and 9/11 attacks. For these reasons, a Palestinian intifada will gain broader support in the current climate than it did in 1987 and 2000 and accordingly Israel will feel increasingly isolated.
The milieu for a Palestinian uprising is ripe, but would such an event indeed alter facts on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians or would it simply serve to further entrenched attitudes and casualties on both sides of the conflict? A definite prediction is difficult to assert, particularly in the context of the current regional climate, which is undergoing changes that academics and analysts have spent years deeming improbable. Nonetheless, it is plausible to contend that a third intifada, particularly one met with violence, will have potentially serious implications for both the United States and Israel.
US officials have voiced their condemnation of violence against pro-democracy protesters in Libya, Syria and Bahrain. Given Washington's hitherto diplomatic support for Israel, it is unlikely that violent clashes in Israel and the Palestinian territories will trigger a parallel denunciation. What is more, the US, through its expected veto of a Palestinian state, will certainly be seen as complicit in spurring such violence. This sheds critical light on America in the eyes of the Arab world and while such a U.S. positioning may have been permissible during times of a static Middle East, it is no longer strategically viable. With a general acknowledgement amongst Arab leaders that they must prioritize the demands of their people, it is unlikely that Arab governments will remain as acquiescent regarding the US-Israeli alliance as they have thus far. Asserting that a continuation of that alliance will break US-Arab relations is an overstatement, but predicting that it will strain them is not.
The Israeli government faces a similar predicament. Although never in abundance of regional friends, Israel has subsisted in an environment where Arab states have been relatively passive to the Israeli-Palestinian predicament since the peace process began in the mid-1970s. For the reasons outlined above, perseverance of such an environment is not guaranteed. Egypt's opening (although restricted) of the Rafah border following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak is an indication thereof, as is the recent withdrawal of its ambassador to Israel.
Even if violence emanates from extremists on the Palestinian side, as was the case a few weeks ago when a bus carrying mainly off-duty Israeli soldiers was attacked with anti-tank missiles, the focus of a clash - in the eyes of the Arab world - will most likely be strictly on the Arab casualties involved. Certainly this has been the case in Egypt where masses took to the streets of Cairo condemning killings of Egyptian security personnel in Sinai that resulted from the bus attack. Additionally, Israel's already precarious international support will diminish and further isolate the state - a general fear that has been voiced several times by Israeli officials - should it respond violently to a Palestinian uprising. Current social dynamics within Israel add another dimension to Netanyahu's quandary: domestic discontent, which manifested in a quarter million Israelis taking to the streets last month to protest high living costs and poor public services, suggests that the Israeli government cannot afford to continue to lead with its customary political-security discourse and policy.
It seems conditions are such that neither Israel nor the United States are in positions of leverage. If anything, both states should avoid aggravating volatile actors of the Arab Spring. One wonders if the best way of achieving this would be to accept Abbas' bid for statehood in September. Certainly this would warrant more stable US-Arab relations. And while it is clearly not the ideal compromise for Israel, accepting a Palestinian state would signal more deliberation on the part of Israeli leaders and hereby reduce the regional and international anti-Israel antagonism that isolates the Jewish state more and more.
In a climate where change is the name of the game, all actors must adjust in order to keep playing - even those who are traditionally exempt from such rules.
The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or RUSI Qatar.
 Congressional Record, V. 146, Pt. 12, July 27, 2000 to September 13, 2000
 Avi Schlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (London: Penguin, 2000)
 Larbi Sadiki, When is Palestine's Arab Revolution? Al Jazeera. July, 2011.
Further Analysis: Middle East Peace, Middle East and North Africa, United Nations, International Institutions