It is not clear what exactly President Abbas will propose in terms of raising the Palestinian profile in the world body on September 23. The implications are many.
The President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, will address the United Nations General Assembly on September 23. At the time of the writing of this article, it is not clear what exactly he will propose in terms of raising the Palestinian profile in the world body. We are led to believe that the Palestinians have not made up their minds so far. Mr. Abbas, who is loath to invite or incite controversy or confrontation, especially with the United States, is reported to be anxious, even at this stage, to find a face-saving formula which will permit him to call off the approach to the U.N. It might be too late already for him to do that. He was widely criticised by his people when he decided, last year, not to pursue the Goldstone report in the Human Rights Council under pressure from the Americans; he had to relent and allow the item to proceed in the Council. He cannot afford to repeat the blunder and appear to give in once again to Israeli, Western and American exhortations. Nonetheless, conscious of the political risks involved, he seems to continue to look for a way out of the impasse. Going by media reports, he might be willing to give up the U.N. route if Israel commits itself, even at this late stage, to a complete freeze on settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and reopening negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders which, incidentally, was proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama himself. Mr. Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, rejects both these conditions, insisting instead on an unconditional resumption of talks. This is unacceptable to Palestine. Thus, despite his strong aversion to confrontation, President Abbas seems to have no choice but to go ahead with the U.N. initiative. After all, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have declared Palestine to be ready to exercise the functions of a state.
Arab Foreign Ministers decided on September 13 that the U.N. route must be pursued, but left it to Mr. Abbas to define the details. Will the Palestinians go first to the Security Council with an application for full membership, knowing fully well that the U.S. will veto it? Would Palestine wish to force the Americans into that situation? The Americans would, or should want to avoid having to exercise their veto since it will further inflame Arab public opinion against them. The litmus test for the U.S. in the Middle East is the Palestinian issue. Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi Ambassador in Washington and confidante of the King, in a piece published in the International Herald Tribune on September 12, has issued a public and unambiguous warning to the U.S.: support a Palestine state or face serious consequences such as a loss of all credibility among the Arabs, an undermining of Israeli security, the end of a ‘special relationship' between the Saudis and America, opposition to the Maliki government in Iraq and, to cap it all, a parting of ways in Afghanistan and Yemen. On purely objective considerations, the U.S. ought to listen to this message. Saudi Arabia has many assets for America as well as for Israel such as stability in the oil market, tackling extremism and radicalism, containing Iran — professed by Israel as its biggest concern, etc. But, of course, American politicians have their own helplessness when it comes to Israel.
Since the admission of a new member cannot be approved by the General Assembly without the prior recommendation to that effect by the Security Council, the Palestinians will have to pitch their expectations in the Assembly to a more modest goal. It is likely that they will propose a non-voting non-member state status for Palestine, such as the one enjoyed by the Vatican. This would enable them to obtain membership in the specialised agencies of the U.N., which would be a huge political gain. In December 1988, the General Assembly approved Res. 43/177, whereby it decided that henceforth, the designation “Palestine” should be used in place of the designation “Palestine Liberation Movement” in the U.N. system. Thus, the General Assembly is within its rights to accede to Palestine's request. As mentioned earlier, this need not cause too much consternation to Israel or its supporters. The Palestinians believe that they have the support of about 125-member states for this proposal so far and that they will easily reach the figure of 128 which represents two-thirds of the membership of the organisation. Israel and the U.S. are opposed to this idea also.
Israel has threatened explicit, and some hitherto undeclared, retaliatory measures in the event of the Palestinians going ahead with their plans. For one thing, Israel will terminate the Oslo agreement, which has been the basis of whatever negotiations have taken place so far. It is because of Oslo that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was able to return to Palestine and the Palestinians have acquired a foothold on Palestinian territory in Gaza and the West Bank. Equally, it is because of Oslo that Israel was able to conclude the peace treaty with Jordan and has gained diplomatic recognition, including establishment of diplomatic relations, with many countries including India and China. What will be the practical consequences of denouncing Oslo? Will Israel reoccupy the Gaza strip and the West Bank?
Will the Palestinians be asked to go back to where they came from, Tunisia for example? Will the gains achieved by both sides be rolled back? The only practical implication is that there will be an official end to negotiations. The Palestinian response is that negotiations have been dead for a long time and that whatever were held have not helped in any way in furthering the Palestinian cause.
Israel has announced that it will not release the revenue earned by way of customs duty on goods received by Palestine from abroad. This can be a very substantial amount for the Palestinians and can cause severe hardship to the Palestinian people and seriously impact the administration of the Palestinian territories. It will also further fan anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiment in the region. A direct consequence of the Arab Spring has been the strengthening of support for the Palestinians, as witnessed by Egypt's decision to reopen the Rafah border with Gaza as well as by the violent anti-Israel protests in Cairo on September 9.
It is difficult to understand Israel's hostility to the Palestinian proposal, particularly the one that might be tabled in the General Assembly. After all, even Mr. Netanyahu has accepted the principle of a Palestinian state; he was widely applauded for that “concession.” Mr. Abbas says he would still wish to return to negotiations after the U.N. action. It bears emphasising that neither Israel nor the U.S. will find any one as reasonable as Mr. Abbas, who may feel obliged to take some drastic step in case his initiative fails, such as resigning his post, thereby leaving the field to extremist elements among his people.
What should be India's stance? Nabil Sha'ath, a high-ranking Palestinian negotiator, visited New Delhi in the last week of August. We owe his visit entirely to the fact that India is a member of the Security Council at present. He has gone back with the promise of our support. It is true that over the past few years, Israel has made inroads into the enthusiasm with which the Palestinian cause was supported in India. This is due in part to the growing relations with Israel, especially in the defence sector, as well as our private sector's increased involvement with Israel. Our relationship with Israel is important and is in the interests of both countries. At times, we seem to ignore or forget this mutuality of interest. Nevertheless, the Palestinian cause continues to enjoy the backing of all political parties. The NDA was no less vocal in declaring solidarity with the Palestinian people. India should not only vote in favour, it should co-sponsor the resolution in the U.N.; otherwise, the fact of our being the first non-Arab country to accord recognition to the Palestinian state in 1988 would not make sense. Israel will certainly get upset, but a democratically elected government in New Delhi would not risk inviting fierce criticism domestically and isolation internationally.
A question arises whether we can grant recognition to an entity which does not have defined borders. But this is really a non-question. After all, even Israel does not have defined or settled borders. In fact, the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, took a conscious decision in 1948 not to specify the new state's borders. Afghanistan and Pakistan have a border which one side does not recognise. Similarly, when we gave recognition to SADR, the government of the Polisario front for Western Sahara, it had neither a functioning government nor defined borders. Recognition, thus, is essentially a political act.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India's special envoy for West Asia and is a former U.N. under secretary general.)