Palestine's Plan B

If negotiations break down, the Palestinians plan to internationalize the dispute.

The beauty of the UN campaign was its flexibility. Unlike most options on the table for the Palestinians, the internationalization campaign had tremendous upside. Not only did it play to one of the last, great strengths of the Palestinian leadership, the UN, but it was able to reconcile internal Palestinian political camps, something very few policy agendas can claim in the West Bank and Gaza. For those that advocate the use of force, or at least a more stern approach to dealing with Israel, it had the advantages of appearing to antagonize Israel and the United States. For those that pledge themselves to bilateral negotiations, it had the upside of appearing to leverage the Palestinian hand, the clearest evidence of that being Kerry’s recent attempts to bring both sides to the table.

For Abbas, a man who wants to appear committed to the bilateral process, the UN campaign followed in the footsteps of his predecessor. In May of 1999, Arafat both publicly and privately mused about what to do after the five-year interim Oslo period ended. With his trademark style of pursuing multiple tracks to varying levels of effort at once, Arafat deployed two deputies, Nabil Shaath and Saeb Erekat, to lobby European countries at the UN to recognize a possible Palestinian declaration of statehood. It was a lobbying campaign that Dennis Ross countered with a campaign of his own, as described in his memoirs; Arafat was “coy” about the possible move. However, President Clinton was able to take advantage of his working relationship with Arafat and bring him back from the brink with the promise of renewed negotiations. It was a moment that undoubtedly had an impact on Abbas when he launched his UN campaign in 2011. Palestinian officials describe Abbas as a leader hoping for Obama to intervene with proposed negotiations, to bring both parties back to the table. With Obama either unwilling or unable to do so, Abbas had walked himself into a corner where the only option was to go to the UN.

If Israeli officials describe the UN campaign as unilateral because it breaks with the spirit of Oslo, and the Palestinians describe the campaign as multilateral because it engages the international community, then the truth is somewhere in between. For the Palestinian leadership, there is an emerging group of officials and policymakers calling for an integrated strategy, a usage of tactics such as ”smart resistance,” of lobbying international countries and signing on to the “clusters” of the global community. This group is not opposed to new negotiations with Israel—indeed they support it—but they have been laying the foundation for a backup plan to failed negotiations for years. If Kerry’s proposed talks do indeed break down, or if they are unable to even start, the backup plan for the Israelis is a perpetuation of the status quo. The backup plan for the Palestinians, however, is taking the conflict back to the international arena.

Grant Rumley is a Visiting Fellow at Mitvim, The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. You can reach him on Twitter: @Grant_Rumley. For more on the Palestinian UN campaign, read the author’s latest report here.

Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.