It’s not the first time the Palestinians have tried it, but with peace talks at an impasse and the Obama administration showing every sign of backing off its earlier commitment to aggressive diplomacy, threats of unilateral action seeking recognition of a state not gained through negotiations may be more serious this time around.
“I was in Jerusalem when Arafat was holding out his threat of a unilateral statehood declaration [in the late 1980s],” said Edward Abington, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the region and more recently a lobbyist for the Palestinian Authority in Washington. “But at that point, it was just a tactic to put pressure on the United States and Israel.
“There’s something new this time,” Abington said. “The Palestinians are totally frustrated, and they simply don’t see any other options.”
Few observers believe a real Palestinian state can be created without an agreement with Israel, but that may be almost beside the point.
“This is not a ‘unilateral declaration of independence,’ ” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime diplomat and proponent of the peace process, who now hangs his hat at the Wilson Center in Washington. “This is the Palestinian grand diversion; it’s an effort to create additional gains and benefits for a PA that has almost nothing to show for its efforts in the international arena.”
But efforts that have won recognition by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, with several other South American states possibly soon to join them, have already produced some results — and not ones the Obama administration wants.
Officials here believe unilateral moves — like settlement expansion by Israel — undermine support for the peace process in the region and further weaken the standing of a U.S. administration whose peace efforts went on life support this month.
“At time when the administration’s new strategy — parallel, indirect conversations on the core issues to produce framework agreement — is not yet clear, this will deepen the perception that its policy is adrift,” said Miller.
Unilateral actions have also surfaced as an issue in Congress. Last week the House passed by voice vote a nonbinding resolution authored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) supporting a two-state solution but saying that can only happen through “direct negotiations between the parties.”
Administration officials agree, but Jewish leaders say it’s not yet clear the State Department has made fighting unilateral actions a high diplomatic priority — as the Israeli Foreign Ministry did this week when it sent instructions to embassies around the world to make fighting the Palestinian ploy a priority.
While Palestinian leaders have said the effort to win international recognition of Palestinian sovereignty is a serious statehood strategy stemming from the failure of Israel to meet its terms for a resumption of direct peace talks, a broad spectrum of analysts say it’s more complicated than that.
Abington, the former diplomat and PLO advocate, said the Palestinian leadership has from the outset believed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling or unable to make the compromises necessary for peace.
And “the Palestinians have really lost faith in the United States and in the Obama administration,” he said. U.S.-Palestinian relations “are about as bad as they’ve been since before Arafat died. The U.S. is seen as inconsistent, as unwilling or unable to get anything positive out of the Netanyahu government, so the Palestinians are looking at other options.”
Abington said Palestinian leaders understand that unilateral action is unlikely to produce an actual state.
“They know it won’t in itself end the Israeli occupation,” he said. “But they see it as a way to further isolate Israel, to delegitimize the occupation.”
But isn’t that just another maneuver to put new pressure on Israel, a strategy that has failed several times in the past?
Martin Raffel, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and head of the Israel Action Network, an inter-agency task force created to fight delegitimization, says yes — and that it is unlikely to make Palestinian statehood any easier to attain.
“This is mostly about gaining tactical advantage in the jockeying for advantage with Israel,” he said.
Asked about the impact of the unilateral statehood drive on support for the peace process in Israel, Raffel was diplomatic.
“It doesn’t help build trust with Israel,” said Raffel, speaking from Israel. “The Israeli officials we’ve talked to believe it undercuts their efforts to get direct negotiations going again, which is frustrating.”
While groups like the Anti-Defamation League see the statehood end-run as part and parcel of the effort to delegitimize Israel, Raffel said it’s not necessarily so.
“Countries that are recognizing a Palestinian state are doing so on the basis of the 1967 borders,” he said. “So that recognition does not remove Israel from the scene — but it clearly is not a substitute for the peace process. It’s not helpful.”
He pointed to a potential rift within the Palestinian leadership on the issue.
Earlier in the month JCPA representatives met with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and “raised the issue with him, in the context of the South American countries that had recognized a Palestinian state,” Raffel said. “He told us that the Palestinians declared statehood in 1988 — and here we are, 22 years later, without a state. He said they are not interested in declarations, they’re interested in a state, and he understands that they will attain that only through negotiations with Israel.”
But that seemingly contradicts other statements and actions — including veteran diplomat Nabil Shaath’s efforts last week pressing European nations to follow the lead of their South American counterparts.
Speaking to the Voice of America, Shaath said, “In a situation like the one we’re in — particularly because of our decision not to go back to violence — what remains is international action. We’re not going to sit on our hands and hope that something will happen from the sky.”
The new unilateral push comes as human rights groups are cranking up their criticisms of the Jewish state. Late last week Human Rights Watch issued a blistering report concluding that “Israel operates a two-tier system for the two populations of the West Bank in the large areas where it exercises exclusive control.”
The only “discernible purposes” of that system “appear to be promoting life in the settlements while in many instances stifling growth in Palestinian communities and even forcibly displacing Palestinian residents,” the group charged. “Such different treatment, on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin and not narrowly tailored to meet security or other justifiable goals, violates the fundamental prohibition against discrimination under human rights law.”
And HRW argued that the disparity justifies efforts to boycott businesses based in West Bank settlements.
Palestinian leaders hope such criticisms will boost the number of states offering recognition to a yet-undeclared Palestinian state — and possibly create a more favorable climate at the United Nations, if they seek action by the international body establishing or recognizing a Palestinian state.
But UN action won’t change the central fact on the ground — that Israel still occupies the West Bank, with a military supremacy that makes it unlikely it will be dislodged by force or international pressure.
“There’s practically nothing the UN can really accomplish,” said Middle East analyst Judith Kipper.
The only thing that might change that equation: a recognition resolution by the Security Council.
But with the Obama administration pledge to fight unilateral actions that are adding to its Middle East woes, no serious analyst argues that Washington wouldn’t use its veto power to block such an action.
Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Israel, said that recent efforts to gain recognition are a “very serious tactic, the main strategy of the Palestinian Authority at present, not a tactic being used for leverage.”
That, he said, “perfectly suits the PA and its leadership needs. The PA doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel both because it rejects compromise and the leadership is too weak to deliver any. So just declaring independence on its own terms is the logical preference.”
In the end, he said, the newest unilateral ploy is a “dandy excuse for not negotiating.”