In seeking United Nations recognition as an independent state — bypassing a negotiated settlement with Israel — Palestinians are tapping into the Arab clamor for self-determination and threatening to isolate Israel on the world stage, according to several Israeli analysts.
“Unfortunately, we are on the brink of a severe crisis,” said Yoram Meitel, chair of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“Civil societies in the Middle East have started writing a new chapter in the history of this region, and important sectors within Israeli society are not on the same chapter,” he said. “Israel is lagging behind and finding it very difficult to participate in writing its own contribution to this new chapter.”
Israeli leaders blame the Palestinians for the failure to resume peace talks and insist that they are prepared to negotiate a treaty that would result in an independent Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel.
Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy minister of defense, said he fears that Palestinian success at the UN might lead to “political isolation that could be very dangerous to Israel.”
“I don’t think anyone would dare to impose sanctions on Israel, but damage could be done to the economy without sanctions,” he said. “For a small nation to be isolated is bad, and this might be isolation from friends as well. Not everyone who will vote for a Palestinian state in September is necessarily our enemy. The point is that in the current international atmosphere, many countries that are our friends will vote for this proposal.
“There is now worldwide support for a Palestinian state while the settlements in the West Bank have no international legitimacy whatsoever,” he added. “We have to face those facts. Nice speeches — eloquent speeches — do not change this fact, and as a nation we have to look at reality.”
Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher agreed that the “status quo” over the last several years won’t remain “because after the UN vote [set for September] Israel will be more isolated internationally. There might even by another intifada [Palestinian uprising in the West Bank].”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party reportedly held a series of meetings last month to discuss the possibility of launching a large-scale intifada against Israelis. The meetings were to find the best way of capitalizing on the Arab Spring demonstrations in the Middle East and on the violent Palestinian riots that occurred last month on Israel’s Independence Day, which the Arabs call the Nakba or catastrophe. On that day, hundreds of Palestinians living in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip stormed theirs borders with Israel.
Scores were actually able to breach the Syrian border after being bussed there by the Syrian government with instructions to break through the border fence and return to their ancestral homes. One actually hitchhiked and took buses to get all the way to the Tel Aviv suburb of Jaffa, where he told police he wanted to find his parents’ former home.
Although the Fatah meetings reportedly failed to agree on a plan, most participants were said to have favored protests and rock throwing that would appear to be part of the Arab spring.
Avraham Diskin, associate professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that in light of what happened last month, Israel “must prepare itself for what happens on the ground.”
“This is a matter of intelligence and preparation by the army,” he said. “On Independence Day the Army was not properly prepared. I hope they will be now. The best thing would be for the Palestinians to have a change of mind, but unfortunately it does not seem to be going that way. In the years to come, there will just be more misery for the Palestinians, and in the short term they will lose from these tactics.”
Shimrit Meir, director of the Arab media program for The Israel Project, a nonprofit pro-Israel group, said she recently conducted focus groups in the West Bank and found that Palestinians are not like many in the Arab world who are clamoring for democracy.
She said they don’t want to see a return to violence against Israelis, and she observed that with Israeli help their economy is thriving.
“Do you know any other area of the world that saw a 9 percent growth in its economy last year?” she asked.
But, Meir pointed out, “Palestinians are being told by their leadership that something huge will happen in September. And Palestinian leaders are planning to hold major street demonstrations after the vote that will be made to appear spontaneous.”
She said also that it is “irresponsible” of Palestinian leaders to raise expectations about the UN vote because “chaos” could ensue when nothing happens.
Asked about attempts to isolate Israel after the vote, Meir, an Israeli, replied: “If the Middle East is not stable, Israel is an island of stability. Why would the international community want to sabotage this? And the minute you isolate Israel you affect negatively Israeli support for the peace process and a two-state solution.”
Hopes by some that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might use his speech to a joint meeting of Congress last week to unveil a new Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal were dashed last month when Fatah signed an agreement with its rival Hamas to form a unity government. As a result, Meitel said, instead of being on the brink of renewed peace talks, Israel views the apparent Palestinian reconciliation as a “huge tsunami coming in its direction.”
“They believe this is not the time to take risks and do anything that will ask Israel to pay the Palestinians in hard currency,” he said, referring to the evacuation of Israeli settlements. “This is the way the right wing reads the situation. Therefore I emphasize my opinion that we are heading into a very severe crisis. Maybe it will not harm the foundations of our relationship with the United States, but it most likely will shake to their foundations our relationships with many countries, including states that Israel has peace treaties with, such as Jordan, Egypt and relationships with the Palestinian Authority and some European countries.”
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Netanyahu’s speeches in Washington were a reflection of the current reality and that Israel is “not being an island unto itself” amid unrest in neighboring Arab countries.
“Positions were being staked out,” he said. “The fact is that Netanyahu talked in strong terms about a Palestinian state, of withdrawing settlements and of willing for trade-offs.”
He said President Barack Obama’s call for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders and land swaps was calculated to “help Obama have friction with Israel to show the Arabs that the United States is not giving Israel a blank check, which is the view is much of the Arab world.”
Steinberg said Netanyahu delivered the speech he did because “nobody, including Obama, has presented any attractive alternatives for Israel. Netanyahu can hold out as long as his approval ratings remain high and he holds his coalition together. And [his Washington trip] helped him domestically.”
A poll commissioned by the Israeli newspaper Maariv found that Netanyahu’s popularity rose slightly after his Washington visit. Asked who was best suited to be prime minister of Israel, he took 36.9 percent of the vote. Second place went to Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party, with 28.3 percent, followed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, with 9.2 percent.
Diskin said Netanyahu’s support comes in part from the fact that he has embraced many of his opposition parties’ demands.
“I think that Netanyahu in so many ways went beyond the most dovish prime ministers we have had so far,” he said. “He repeated [in his speech to Congress] 13 times that he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, and no one did that before. There were many other steps by him, including the unprecedented [10-month] building freeze.”
At the same time, Diskin said, the Palestinians’ refusal to agree to such things as a demilitarized state are “unacceptable to anyone, even Meretz,” a far-left political party.
But Sneh, the former deputy defense minister, said he believes that if both sides are prepared “to give up one dream,” peace can be achieved.
“The Palestinian dream that [its] refugees will be settled in their historic places inside Israel is unacceptable,” he said. “And Israel must give up the dream that all the territory we annexed in Jerusalem in 1967 will remain ours. No one will tell me that to include 300,000 Palestinians in the territory [of east Jerusalem] is a dream you cannot give up. You don’t divide Jerusalem — you divide east Jerusalem. You get rid of the Palestinian neighborhoods and keep Jerusalem.”
Meitel said he too believes that “at the end of the day Israel’s national interests will lead us into an historic compromise with the Palestinians. According to this reading, any future government in Israel would not have any other choice but to take the steps needed for achieving a serious two-state solution. There is no way out, especially in the current circumstances in the Middle East.”