Immobilism at Root of Diplomatic Campaign by Palestinian Leadership

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine, 20 July 2014. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Neglect by the US of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has provoked the Palestinian leadership to launch a series of desperate diplomatic moves at the Security Council and the International Criminal Court that have elicited strong rebuke from both the Obama Administration and Netanyahu’s government. But this criticism overlooks the frustration felt by major world actors over the deterioration of the conflict and the dangers inherent in the current immobilism.

The lack of focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is understandable. The Obama Administration is overwhelmed by multiple major crises in the Middle East. The conflict in Syria and its regional repercussions is on its own a massive challenge. On top of this, Libya and Yemen are both on the verge of civil war, and a number of other countries are seriously unstable. The US is also burned out from its involvement in the conflict. In particular, last year, Secretary of State John Kerry exhausted himself to restart negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, and ultimately failed.

The consequences of the failure to get negotiations back on track and the diplomatic stagnation that followed have been severe. Foremost is the war in Gaza this summer in which more than 2,200 Palestinians and 70 Israelis were killed. This is not the first time that the deadly consequences of immobilism in the Arab-Israeli conflict were put on display. In his authoritative history on Israeli policy toward the Arab world, The Iron Wall, Avi Shlaim argues that Golda Meir’s “policy of immobilism was largely responsible for the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War” in 1973, referring to repeated refusal by the then Israeli prime minister of overtures to negotiate.

Abbas’ latest diplomatic campaign has been met with strong resistance. In response to his latest step, to sign the papers to accede to the International Criminal Court, Israel has upped the stakes by deciding to withhold the more than 100 million USD it gathers monthly on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and on which the latter relies for much of its budget. The US and Israel had warned the Palestinians against making such “unilateral” moves—despite the fact that they are all directed at multilateral organizations—and in particular, against asking for accession to the international court, which the Palestinians brandished as a measure of last resort.

Only days before, on December 17, the Palestinian Mission at the UN had surprised the diplomatic community at the UN by putting to a vote at the Security Council—through the Jordanian delegation, which represents Arab interests at the chamber—a resolution that stipulated the end of 2017 as the date by which Israel should carry out a complete withdrawal from the West Bank.

The move wasn’t particularly well received by the diplomatic community around the UN. It was perceived as a rushed maneuver designed only to achieve short-term gains. France had been working for some time on a compromise resolution, and its diplomats were apparently taken aback by the Palestinian action. Also, had the Palestinians held tight just a few days, till 2015, they would have had a new set of non-permanent members at the Security Council—in particular Angola, Malaysia, and Venezuela—that are more sympathetic to their cause. Further, the Palestinian representative broke protocol by suggesting that the resolution could still be negotiated after it had already been put “in blue,” a term used to refer to a resolution that is set in writing and distributed among Security Council members, prior to being put to a vote. A slightly modified resolution that was fielded by the Palestinians on December 30 was vetoed by the US, though it won eight—including France’s—of the nine votes necessary for its adoption by the Security Council.

President Mahmoud Abbas is himself under great pressure from his own constituency, and this latest diplomatic campaign is widely seen as a measure of his desperation to regain some sort of credibility among Palestinians, who have for the most part only seen over the years a deterioration of their living conditions and the dwindling of their national rights.

On the last day of 2014, The New York Times published a strongly worded editorial, in line with the position of the US administration, in which it chastised Abbas for taking “provocative” steps that “will almost certainly make the situation worse, setting back the cause of statehood even further.” However, five days later, it printed a news analysis piece with a different take: “Palestinians Seen Gaining Momentum in Quest for Statehood.” The latter appears to be more in tune with the strong interest there is globally, outside of the US, in pushing for a solution to the conflict. The recognition by a number of European parliaments of the State of Palestine, though largely symbolic, is a clear reaction to the failure to date of the negotiations—or lack thereof.

Though it is understood that the US has already invested significant efforts in trying to solve the conflict, there is widespread frustration due to the current immobility and the fact that no other actors are able to play a role (the Oslo talks, started behind the backs of the US in the early 1990s, are the only negotiation process that has brought the parties close to a solution). The iron grip with which the US maintains its monopoly over all efforts at resolving the conflict is most palpable at the Security Council, where, for example, between 1978 and 2010, it used its veto 42 times against resolutions it deemed harmful to Israeli interests.

And it is in that arena that the frustrations of other nations are most visible. France, despite its own reservations at the way that the Palestinians presented the resolution at the end of last year, felt strongly enough about the issue to vote in favor on December 30. This is a reflection of frustration felt by the European Union more generally at the continuation of the conflict and their inability to mediate. The UN Secretariat itself, with no few skills in mediation, would also be willing to assume a more prominent role, and its staff is exasperated with the current impasse.

The problem is of course not only that the US wants to be the ultimate arbiter in the conflict, but also, importantly, that Israel does not trust others to intervene. Be that as it may, there is a growing groundswell of support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and an increasing sense of desperation at the absence of any significant diplomatic initiatives—let alone actual peacemaking rather than just “peace processing.” Immobility, however, which has a tendency to morph into violence, is certainly not an option.