The streets and hills of the West Bank were relatively quiet last weekend during and immediately following Friday's bid by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for United Nations membership and, by implication, Palestinian independence. Only a few hundred Palestinian rock throwers clashed with Israeli troops along the Jewish-Arab seams, and only one demonstrator was shot dead. (At about the same time, an Israeli settler and his one-year-old son died when their car overturned, apparently after Palestinian rock throwers hurled a rock through their windshield.)
Back in 1988, against the backdrop of the first Intifada or rebellion against Israeli rule, the Palestinians, under Yasser Arafat, issued a "declaration of independence,” but it had had no effect on the ground or on international diplomacy. But times have changed. With the Muslim world more powerful and assertive, last weekend's events may prove to be politically significant if not a milestone in Middle Eastern history. The "tsunami" predicted by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak may yet wash over the Middle East.
This week the Security Council will begin deliberating the Palestinian request. But given American opposition to the Palestinians' unilateral bid for statehood, these deliberations may well drag on for many weeks if not months, and, at their end, the bid may fail to win the necessary nine votes or more in the fifteen-member council or may be shot down by an American veto. (Washington, of course, is reluctant to use its veto, which, if deployed, would likely further blacken its image in the Arab world and has these past weeks been strenuously mobilizing a blocking seven votes to stymie the Palestinian move.)
But the slow frustration of heightened Palestinian and pan-Arab expectations—vide the joyous crowds in Ramallah's central Arafat Square Friday evening, as if independence had already been attained—could well result in the outbreak of mass violence around the West Bank and along the Gaza-Israel border (though this past week Abbas's Palestinian Authority has been diligent and successful in keeping the lid on). Such violence, perhaps amounting to a third Intifada, could well suck in neighboring Arab states, such as Egypt, roiled by the so-called Arab Spring (which so far has issued in much bloodshed, new dictatorships, a strengthening of Islamist forces, anti-Westernism and, of course anti-Zionism), Syria, whose embattled Assad regime may be bent on deflecting popular rage away from itself, and Lebanon, dominated by the Iranian cat's-paw, the fundamentalist Hezbollah.
It is likely that if the Palestinian bid for statehood founders at the Security Council, Abbas will take his case—via proxies—to the General Assembly and ask for acceptance as a "non-member state.” This may not give the Palestinians the full international recognition they seek, but it will provide them with a giant morale booster and give the Palestinian masses, and perhaps security forces, who will go out and confront the Israelis along the West Bank and Gaza borders, a sense of international empowerment. Without doubt, the similar international backing accorded by the General Assembly to the Jewish community in Palestine served it well as it fought its way to statehood in 1947–1948. (It is worth noting that UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 which served as the basis for the Jewish bid for statehood, also accorded the Palestinians a state—but the Palestinians, and the greater Arab world, rejected the resolution and the Palestinians then failed to take what was offered and declare statehood.)
The Middle East "Quartet,” the international peace-orchestrating forum of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN Secretary General, on Friday issued a call for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, setting out a timetable. The four called for a start to talks within a month, submission by both sides of proposals on borders and security arrangements within three months, and completion of a peace treaty by the end of 2012. But such timetables have in the past come and gone with regularity and without any issue.
The Palestinians, placed in an awkward position, have rejected the Quartet's call, saying that it did not include their preconditions for the resumption of peace talks, that is, Israeli acceptance of the 4 June 1967 borders as the territorial basis for a settlement and Israeli suspension of settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem for the talks' duration.