Ramallah, West Bank — Frustrated by the lack of progress in peace talks, the Palestinians are considering alternatives to bilateral peace negotiations if the diplomatic process remains frozen during the coming weeks.
There is talk of a unilateral appeal to the U.S. and United Nations for recognition of a state within the 1967 borders, but officials admit this is a more tactical move to score points for the Palestinians when negotiations are restarted.
But there is also talk of a more radical “end game,” in the words of a senior Palestinian negotiator: the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority with responsibility for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza reverting to Israel.
“There is no momentum for peace. There is a degradation of the peace process,” Nabil Shaath, a member of the negotiating team, told reporters on Monday. “The world must get a feeling of the alternative. This cannot go on. The status quo is untenable.”
The peace negotiations, begun at the White House in early September, ran aground after a month because of Israel’s decision to resume building Jewish housing in the West Bank after the expiration of a 10-month moratorium.
After setters rushed to lay the foundation for hundreds of new units, the Palestinians are now saying that an extension of the original freeze will not be enough to persuade them to resume talks. They are calling for a full cessation of activity, a demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to meet.
Though the Arab League and the Palestinians gave the U.S. extra time to persuade Israel to curtail building, Palestinians officials say they will give Washington only a few more weeks before appealing for an international resolution.
On the other hand, they still say that they prefer to gain statehood through bilateral talks.
“When we talk about alternatives, this doesn’t mean failing [in the] talks; we want them to succeed,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Palestinian news agency Ma’an. “The issue is not easy and negotiation is a tool that is used to solve problems, not a goal in itself. If Israel made the talks fail, then we will go to the other options.”
The warnings are not new. A year ago, PA President Mahmoud Abbas warned that he would resign if the peace process became bogged down.
Around the same time, Erekat published a position paper on the stalled state of the talks and suggested approaching the UN Security Council regarding endorsement of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians are now mulling a seven-point contingency plan that begins with their demand for a full settlement freeze and a return to talks. If that is not fulfilled, they will appeal to the U.S. to publish a series of peace principles. If the U.S. doesn’t accede, they plan to appeal for statehood recognition through three UN forums. The last contingencies involved the dissolution of the PA and the resignation of Abbas.
Though the Palestinians believe that a statehood resolution would win the support of Europe and other major players in the UN, they admit that it is likely the U.S. would use its veto. What’s more, the Palestinians realize that a UN endorsement would do little to alter Israeli control of daily life in the West Bank.
So, are the warnings any more serious this time around?
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon has called Palestinian talk of an appeal to the UN an empty threat. Despite the declaration, some Israeli officials acknowledge that any declaration at the UN would be politically unpleasant even if it had little operational effect.
A political declaration by the UN on statehood “will have no legal meaning but it will be a powerful statement,” said an Israeli official who asked not to be named. “It won’t change realities on the ground, but politically it will be an unpleasant moment.”
Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN, argued before the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor against an effort by the Palestinians to have the judicial body rule on cases in the West Bank and Gaza. He said it would constitute a de facto recognition of the territories as a sovereign state.
Gold said he expects more unilateral appeals in 2011. The Oslo Accords forbid the Palestinians from declaring a state, but that doesn’t prevent them from seeking recognition abroad.
“The Palestinians would find themselves in an awkward legal position if they declared a state themselves, but if they got an international legal institution to recognize them this would serve their purposes,” he said. “They will be able to say we didn’t declare a state, others recognized us. I see them exploiting international institutional institutions in order to obtain that acknowledgement.”
Some see the search for diplomatic alternatives as aimed just as much at domestic Palestinian opinion as at Israel and the world powers.
Abbas is worried that a diplomatic vacuum could lead to a new intifada (like in 2000) and could weaken him in relation to Hamas, so he is thinking about other options “like no time before,” said Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.
“The search for alternatives is real,” he said in an e-mail.
“The credibility of the message, however, depends on the viability of the alternative. This one — internationalization — as opposed to the other one — dissolving the PA — is highly credible, as it does not impose high costs on the PA. Abbas and [PA Foreign Minister Salam] Fayyad have been careful not to threaten the latter, the dissolution of the PA, since they recognize that it lacks credibility. In fact, both have deliberately and publicly rejected this option.”
Dror Bar Yosef, an expert on Palestinian politics formerly of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, agreed that the threat of unilateralism seems aimed just as much at domestic Palestinian opinion as well as at Israel and the world powers.
He said that many in Abbas’ Fatah party have grown tired of negotiations and are frustrated with his leadership. Some are pushing for a new uprising. He added that many in Fatah don’t subscribe to the tactic of a unilateral appeal for UN recognition, because they expect the U.S. to block any attempt to pass a resolution in the Security Council.
“From Abu Mazen’s point of view, this step is a way of avoid the emergence of a third intifada,” he said.“ The Palestinians see themselves in the worst position ever. They’ve been saying this for two years … The Palestinians are not stupid. They aren’t going to wait for Netanyahu to play his winning card. Abu Mazen has his plan, and other people in the Fatah are making their plans.”
Avi Issacharoff, a correspondent who covers the Palestinians for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, said he doesn’t consider the alternatives as serious courses of action.
“I cannot see the PA dissolving itself, and letting the IDF take care of their people. Hundreds of thousands of people are living from the salaries they get,” he said. “They have climbed so high up the tree of the settlement freeze, now they are trying to find a way down. I don’t think the Palestinians have any real options in front of them instead of going to the negotiations, but they can’t go after the resumption of settlement building.”