What does it mean when a highly influential, government-friendly think thank offers the most cogent, well-informed and well-argued advice to the Netanyahu coalition as to how it should respond to the Palestinians’ UN bid and the advice appears to be rejected? The Reut Institute, which defines its aim as ‘provid[ing] real-time, long-term strategic decision-support to Israeli leaders and decision-makers’, just published a paper titled: The Palestinian Declaration of Statehood: An Unparalleled Opportunity? The question mark implies a diffidence that is absent from the paper itself. The authors seem to be in no doubt that actively campaigning to get UN recognition of the Palestinian Authority as an independent state and a full member state of the UN is firmly in the Netanyahu government’s, and thereby Israel’s, best interest.
The Reut Institute came to international attention in 2010 for policy advice, enthusiastically adopted by the Israeli government, on combating the worldwide ‘delegitimization’ of Israel. The narrative associated with this term has become one of the central themes in all Israeli hasbara (‘information’, the Israeli authorities call it; ‘propaganda’ in the eyes of most observers) and in the activities defending Israel undertaken by pro-Israel organizations in the Jewish diaspora.
Reut’s advice on the Palestinians’ UN bid was first offered by its President, Gidi Grinstein, in a Haaretz op-ed in July 2011:
Israel may stand to gain several strategic advantages from the success of Palestinians’ UN motion. For example, this is the only scenario where Israel and the Palestinians can shape the permanent status of their relations, while Israel initially controls all security assets, including the air space and the external borders. Furthermore, a Palestinian state is the most promising way to dilute the refugee problem, as it will render UNWRA redundant and may change the status of refugees. Lastly, establishment of such a state will allow for direct state-to-state engagement on gradually shaping permanent status and determining permanent borders, particularly with regards to the delicate issue of swapping of populated areas adjacent to the border on both sides.
The published paper expands on these points and adds other advantages: ‘Anchoring the principle of “two states for two peoples”‘; ‘positioning Israel as an asset to its allies’; ‘lowering the prospects of confrontation between the IDF and the Palestinian population’.
Make no mistake, however; while the Reut paper takes as read the Palestinians’ rationale for pursuing the statehood declaration through the UN, its sights are firmly set on what is in the interests of the state of Israel. For example, the paper proposes that the Security Council resolution ‘would clearly refer to the “Jewish state” or “nation-state of the Jewish people” parallel to the “Arab/Palestinian state,” or, at the minimum, to the principle of “two-states-for-two-peoples”. Thus, a central and highly controversial demand now being made of the Palestinians by Israel would be achieved.
Furthermore, the paper argues:
Resumption of the political process on a ‘state-to-state basis’ [means that t]he ‘historic issues’ that emanate from 1948, or issues that are resonant for the entire Palestinian people (for example, the refugee issue or the holy sites in Jerusalem), would be negotiated only at a later stage.
But the establishment of Palestine as an independent, internationally recognised state is likely to neutralise once and for all what Israeli governments have always seen as the danger of the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state were it to recognise the right of return of the refugees as laid down in UN General Assembly resolution 194. Reut says that: ‘Palestinian refugees would be able to return to the Palestinians’ state’. Israel would no longer have any international obligation to let them return to its pre-1967 territory. In general, ‘An Israeli political initiative that accepts Palestinian statehood places the “burden of proof” on the Palestinians to meet Israel’s concerns’.
The paper concludes that Israel’s support for Palestinian membership of the UN as an independent state would spare the US from using its veto in the UNSC; it would enable Israel ‘to receive a unique and tailored security package from the US that would guarantee Israel’s capacities to confront future challenges arising from the Palestinian state and the dramatic changes in the Middle East.’
Tellingly, the Executive Summary makes no mention whatsoever of settlements. The full, 14-page, single-spaced paper refers to settlements 4 times, but only once addresses them as an issue requiring resolution: ‘Settlements, borders, Jerusalem, and security are outstanding issues according to the existing agreements, and should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian side. Israel may benefit from the growing accountability of the Palestinian state.’ In this scenario the state of Palestine would have in its midst (outside of Jerusalem) 300,000 Jewish settlers over which it could exercise no sovereignty, its borders would remain in doubt and the balance of control of its security would remain with the Israelis. It may declare East Jerusalem as its capital, but this would prove meaningless since the Israeli government would almost certainly prevent the Palestinian Authority from operating in Jerusalem and exercising any control over its capital.
There’s so much in the Reut paper for Netanyahu to like. And who knows, perhaps he will still adopt this strategy. The Palestinians still plan to defy the Obama administration and apply to the UNSC for full UN membership. But Abbas has reportedly agreed that any vote be put on hold to allow for fresh attempts to revive peace talks. So Netanyahu would have time to change his mind.
This seems to me very unlikely, and it’s not difficult to see why the Reut paper falls short for the Israeli prime minster. (1) He would have to give an unequivocal commitment on his part to the creation of a Palestinian state, something which very many observers believe he fundamentally rejects. (2) Adopting the Reut strategy would of course make it impossible for him to annex the West Bank.
Drastic as it may seem to some, given possible international reaction, there is strong evidence that annexation is a distinct possibility. A number of commentators have suggested that this could be Netanyahu’s response to any UN approval of membership for a Palestinian state. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has threatened as much. There are, reportedly, more than 40 members of the Knesset who advocate such a move. The West Bank is already so fragmented and so subject to Israeli control that extending the Bantustanisation of the area would not be difficult. The anti-boycott law has already established the principle that, to all intents and purposes, Israeli law now encompasses the West Bank.
But perhaps what most clearly illustrates how annexation may be but a short step away is what is being done in Jerusalem. Study the 2009 map produced by Ir Amim (unfortunately, their updated 2011 map isn’t yet on line), which shows the existing areas of Jewish settlement outside of West Jerusalem and within the Jerusalem municipal boundary and also Israel’s future building projects that are effectively aimed at achieving contiguity of Jewish settlement from the north-west round the eastern side of the city to the south-west. To my eye, it’s practically inconceivable that this area, all of which was East Jerusalem and West Bank pre-1967, could, in any meaningful sense now constitute the capital of a Palestinian state. Yes, perhaps, if the future building projects were abandoned. But what is much more likely is that, in the event of the UN Security Council giving its backing to the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and in advance of any serious negotiations taking place, Israel will go full steam ahead to complete its ring of steel round the city.
Leaving aside the Reut Institute, those newspapers, columnists, liberal Zionist individuals and groups, left-wing Jewish organizations and so on, which support the Palestinians’ UN bid will generally respond by saying that international opinion simply won’t stand for such a move on Israel’s part. But I say this is naive, wishful thinking. For all that the world is now openly debating the Palestinians’ UN bid, and the plight of the Palestinians is on the international agenda once again at a level not seen for many years, how that concern might be translated into some serious control over Israel’s actions is utterly unclear. In the last 40-odd years the occupation and the growth of settlements has rolled inexorably on. In many respects Israel-Palestine is already one state, albeit a repressive one as far as the Palestinians are concerned. What power is going to intervene to prevent the Israeli government doing more or less what it likes?
Some argue that it will be the power of non-violent protest, of which the turn to the UN is an expression. The Palestinians are tired of and disillusioned with violence, and few expect a third intifada of such a character. But even though a senior Israeli Defence Force official admitted in 2010 that Israel was ‘not good at dealing with Gandhi’, that does not mean that the security forces will just roll over when faced with mass non-violent process. On the contrary, in situations where they are caught between Palestinian youth and the settlers, they might overreact. Assuming that the PA is still functioning and at least initially maintaining security cooperation with the Israelis, and hasn’t simply handed in its keys to the West Bank in disgust at not securing UN membership, it’s hard to see how the non-violent movement, which is anyway rather fragile, could stand in Israel’s way.
I have felt very ambivalent about the Palestinians’ UN bid – whether it succeeds or fails – because of my fears that it would rebound badly on them: their current situation could deteriorate and the realisation of their rights to meaningful self-determination could suffer a possibly irrecoverable setback. Negotiations were at a standstill so something was needed to break the logjam and some argue that this bold initiative has already achieved that. But the fact that Abbas looks as if he is being fobbed off with promises of renewed negotiations casts severe doubt on that judgement. There is already great Palestinian anger at Obama’s almost entirely one-sided speech and his hard line determination to veto the application to the Security Council if it comes to a vote – more openly one-sided, I think, than even many already sceptical observers expected. Abbas’s political career is on the line.
But while I’m not convinced that the UN bid was the best way of escaping from the current impasse, now that it’s underway I find myself in the curious position of urging Netanyahu to listen to his think tank friends and adopt the Reut strategy – as the least worst option for the Palestinians. Continuation of the status quo only means that options become more limited by the day. At least the rationale behind their advice has the benefit of being transparent. Within the framework of negotiations that would need to follow success in the Security Council and that would have to include some international oversight, and armed with the additional international leverage UN membership would give them – the ability to refer Israeli contraventions of international law to the International Criminal Court for example – the Palestinians would have an opportunity and a fighting chance to develop their own strategy for making statehood work for them.