Palestine's Plan B

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

In the time it took John Kerry to announce that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be starting again, a microcosm of the past couple years in the conflict played out. Initial leaks, clear-cut denials, clarifications about preconditions, expectations and the like burst out from all sides. Yet within the enigmatic, if not routine, vacillations that accompanied this announcement, the Palestinians began revealing different facets of their contingency plan. In an interview with a Jordanian newspaper, Mahmoud Abbas was quick to point out that “all options are open,” mentioning the possibility of returning to the UN and referring to the bid as the “greatest achievement” in recent Palestinian memory.

So what happens if negotiations actually renew and then break down again? What’s next for the Palestinian agenda?

Kerry has said that progress needs to be made by the fall, presumably to circumvent future Palestinian actions at the UN; it’s clear that one of the conditions for resuming talks was a halt in the Palestinian internationalization campaign while talks are ongoing. The common Israeli prediction is that the Palestinians could build off their 2011-2012 UN campaign and do something as drastic as going to the International Criminal Court to air their grievances. This battle of global public opinion is one of the few areas of Palestinian diplomatic strength, and a severe concern for the Israelis. Yet if that’s the next move in the eyes of the Israelis, the feeling isn't mutual in Ramallah. Indeed, as one senior Fatah official pointed out to me, the ICC is the last organization on a list of organizations triaged in importance to the Palestinian internationalization campaign. What is more likely, then, is a renewed Palestinian diplomatic campaign at the international level, a campaign that starts with the Palestinians seeking to sign some of the less-threatening international treaties such as the UNICEF Rights of the Child. These treaties and conventions are referred to by Palestinian leaders as the “first clusters”; relatively minor organizations and treaties that escalate as the campaign continues. Becoming signatories to some of these treaties has two main benefits for the Palestinians: first, they show the Palestinian people a palpable engagement on the international level, and second, they do very little to antagonize the United States and Israel.

But where did these “clusters” and contingency plans come from? The shift in the Palestinian leadership was gradual but recent. Faced with a moribund peace process and a status quo that increasingly harmed their interests, the Palestinian leadership scrambled to find alternative tactical tracks to pursue. In 2009, this reached a head when Abbas was faced with roughly three main options: attempt to reconcile the Fatah/Hamas split, essentially condone an intifada, or go international and approach the UN. With less-than-overwhelming enthusiasm for reconciliation, and similar disdain for an intifada, Abbas was left with really only one realistic option: internationalization.

The justification, then, for this choice lay in the history of the Palestinian political movement. In interviews this past year in Ramallah, Palestinian officials were quick to align the recent international campaign with the historical movements of the Palestinians at the UN. This process, in their eyes, started in 1974, with the PLO’s release of the ten-point plan, a document that sought to reconcile the armed resistance, but also left room for political maneuverability. As the Lebanese war raged on, the local PLO leadership began to evolve, forming the institutions of a semi-state. This evolution continued in 1982, when PLO members began openly calling for the acceptance of Resolution 242, the UN resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from “lands occupied in the recent conflict.” Abbas’s own memoirs detail this evolution—as an advocate of accepting 242 in 1974, Abbas noted that by 1982 members of the PLO thought a shift towards the international community could ”break the siege [of Beirut] and preserve the PLO.”

By 1988, this evolution had reached a climax when the Palestinians issued their declaration of independence, a statement that was joined with supporting documents accepting Resolution 242 and the two-state process. Soon after, Arafat was invited to address the UN, the Palestinians’ status was upgraded to observer entity, and a few days later Arafat renounced terrorism in a teleconference. The evolution of Palestinian thought that had culminated in an international campaign was halted subsequently thereafter, as the United States and PLO began to form a tenuous, if not productive, relationship that would lead to Madrid and eventually the Oslo process. Not until this process broke down in the years following Annapolis would the Palestinians look back on their internationalization campaign. As one PA official told me, “it’s as if the stopwatch we started in 1974 and paused in 1988 was resumed in 2009.”

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.