Paul Pillar

Abu Mazen's Observations

Several ingredients are combining to intensify the usual cant that surrounds the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One is the Palestinian Authority's plan, and Israeli resistance to that plan, to seek recognition of statehood in the fall from the United Nations General Assembly. A second is the recent reconciliation agreement between the major Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, and—despite this accord's promising to provide the authoritative representative of all Palestinians that so often has been said to be a missing requirement for effective Palestinian-Israeli negotiations—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's categorical, peremptory rejection of that agreement. A third is Netanyahu's opportunity next week to flex his American political muscle when he address the U.S. Congress.

Against this backdrop, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offers an op ed in Tuesday's New York Times that is mainly a defense of the decision to appeal to the General Assembly regarding recognition of statehood. His offering is only one side's view, of course, and doesn't address many other considerations in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. But he speaks some of the most important truths about this conflict, which makes his article worth reading.

One of those truths is that the action by the General Assembly that constitutes the State of Israel's international birth certificate—the 1947 U.N. partition plan for Palestine—provided not just for that one state but for two, the other one being a state for Palestinian Arabs. If the General Assembly recognizes such a state this autumn, it will merely be a natural follow-on to the resolution it adopted 64 years earlier (and after 64 years, the Assembly can hardly be said to be rushing matters). The Palestinians have long since given up on the land that was supposed to be part of the Arab state but was lost to Israeli forces in the war that followed Britain's withdrawal from Palestine; as Abbas says, it is only in the remaining 22 percent of Palestine that his people hope to live free.

Another truth is that the Palestinians, in Abbas's words, “have been negotiating with the State of Israel for 20 years without coming any closer to realizing a state of our own.” Say what you want about all that came before—including the foolish rejection by most Arabs in 1947 of the partition plan, Gamal Abdel Nasser's brinkmanship that preceded Israel pulling the trigger to start the 1967 war, Yasser Arafat's hang-ups, and all the other blame that can be generously allotted to both sides in this intractable conflict—but it is hard to gainsay that since Israel has had a negotiating partner seeking to reach a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, the net effect of all the diplomatic energy expended during those two decades has been to go just about nowhere.

The most visible and concrete change during that time has been a step away from the two-state solution: the settlement of some half a million Israelis on land seized in the 1967 war. That leads to another of Abbas's truths: “Neither political pressure nor promises of rewards by the United States have stopped Israel’s settlement program.” The impact of that program—the most quintessentially unilateral of any of the actions either side has taken in the years since 1967—on the negotiating space supports Abbas's observation that the choice is “between a two-state solution or settlement-colonies.”

The final truth is that if the General Assembly recognizes Palestinian statehood, this—unlike the settlement program—does not restrict the negotiating space or do anything else to infringe on bilateral negotiations. It merely grants to one party a legal status that the other party has enjoyed all along. In Abbas's words, “Once admitted to the United Nations, our state stands ready to negotiate all core issues of the conflict with Israel.”

Criticize Abbas as much as you want for his tactics or his selectivity in emphasizing some facts rather than others. But some of the important things he says are simply undeniable.

Image by hanini