Despite the unshakable and quixotic optimism of John Kerry’s Middle East negotiating team, the prevailing prognosis in Jerusalem and Ramallah is that even an attempt to implement an interim Israeli-Palestinian peace framework—let alone a final status agreement—is doomed to fail.
If talks break down, observers including the New York Times’ Tom Friedman suggest that Israel will come under massive international pressure for its continued building of settlements. But what Friedman and others don’t understand is that the Palestinians will lead the way. They have a plan ready and waiting.
Palestinian politics are rarely covered in the United States. Nor, for that matter, are they given a great deal of thought in the Middle Eastern press. But Palestinian insiders are now indicating that there is mounting pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to produce something, anything, to alter the status quo. Even now, while negotiations are in full swing, Abbas increasingly appears to be ‘the little Dutch boy’—
This initiative had been in the works, with fits and starts, since 2005. That year, Abbas reportedly traveled to Brazil for a summit of South American and Arab states, and met privately with Brazil's leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There, da Silva supposedly told Abbas that when he neared the end of his second term (which expired on January 1, 2011), he would help build a Latin American consensus for a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the UN.
Between 2009 and 2011, Abbas and Lula made good on their plan, recruiting scores of Latin American and other non-aligned states to recognize the State of Palestine. The campaign also included European states such as France, Spain, Portugal and Norway. In 2010, at an Arab League meeting in Sirte, Abbas made one of his first references to the “Palestine 194” campaign. The name said it all: there are currently 193 member-states in the United Nations, and the Palestinians were unambiguous about their desire to become the 194th.
The international community was similarly unambiguous about its support for the campaign. By the end of 2010, almost one hundred countries had already recognized an independent Palestine. The effort to garner widespread international support was, to say the least, a new and evolved one. The Israelis tried to dissuade some friendly states from supporting the campaign, but the Palestinians clearly had the upper hand.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2011, “…I submitted, in my capacity as the President of the State of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to His Excellency Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, an application for the admission of Palestine on the basis of the 4 June 1967 borders, with Al-Quds Al-Sharif [Jerusalem] as its capital, as a full member of the United Nations.”
With that, Abbas made history. And while it can be argued that Arafat had already declared a Palestinian state in 1988, the Palestine 194 campaign felt distinctly different. The Palestinians had conceived, formulized, and implemented a concerted international policy, and it was, at least to this point, a diplomatic victory.
The only hitch, however, was that the U.S. was poised to veto their efforts at the Security Council.
Undeterred, Abbas brought the campaign home to overwhelming positive reception. As Al Jazeera reported, “A welcome party was planned at the Muqata, the presidential headquarters [in Ramallah], and a stage was set up next to the grave of the former president, Yasser Arafat.” The Palestinian government and schools closed early. Palestinians across the West Bank received text messages advertising “the official mass reception.” Palestine TV devoted its broadcast to Abbas, broadcasting photographs of the leader throughout the years as well as footage of him meeting ordinary Palestinians and international figures. For the Palestinians’ second president who has always been viewed as a rather bland and uncharismatic afterthought to Yasser Arafat, the reception was gratifying.
Abbas did not savor his victory for long, however. As expected, Palestine 194 was not well received in Washington. Led by efforts in the U.S. Congress, Washington withheld $200 million in financial assistance as a warning to the Palestinians not to return to the UN.
However, the Palestinians were not prepared to accept defeat. With more than one hundred countries in support of the “State of Palestine,” the Palestinians had leverage. Abbas and his advisers immediately made a play for membership at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
But this, too, came with consequences. According to a little-known American law passed during the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the U.S. is prohibited from giving funds to any part of the U.N. system that grants the PLO the same standing as member states. So, as the Palestinians pushed for full membership, they were effectively pushing for a $70 million per year (America’s 22 percent) slashing of the UNESCO budget, which operated on a $325 million per annum budget.
The vote took place in October 2011, with 107 of 173 countries voting in favor, 14 opposing, and 52 abstaining. Immediately thereafter, U.S. funds were slashed. The UNESCO victory was a pyrrhic one, at best. Meanwhile, the request for statehood had not led to a vote at the Security Council. Indeed, the bid had stalled when it became clear the US would not hesitate to use its veto.
Despite these setbacks, by early 2012, the PLO signaled that it was poised for another run at the UN. To be sure, not all Palestinians leaders were on board. Some were unconvinced of the benefits it would yield the Palestinians. Indeed, some believed that it was a campaign guided by pride rather than strategic interests. Among the most outspoken opponents was then-prime minister, Salam Fayyad.
Washington undoubtedly played a role in curbing Palestinian enthusiasm. In a June interview with the Saudi Okaz newspaper, Saeb Erekat said the U.S. threatened to suspend aid and close down the PLO mission in Washington if the Palestinians returned to the UN. In an apparent move to placate President Barack Obama, Al-Hayat reported that Abbas would postpone the UN bid until after U.S. elections in early November.
Over the course of the next few months, the Palestinians settled on November 29 as their target. Only this time, they planned to go directly to the General Assembly, where they had the numbers advantage, and Washington could not veto. The strategy proved successful. 138 countries voted in favor of the initiative. Only 9 voted against—eight, not including Israel.
In short, the Palestinians demonstrated that their campaign could not be deterred. Not even the United States could prevent their bid for recognition. And the leadership made it clear that it would not cease seeking recognition so long as Palestinian independence was not achieved.
This, in part, explains the urgency of the Obama Administration’s new peace process, launched in the spring of 2013. Led by Secretary of State John Kerry and managed by veteran diplomat Martin Indyk, Washington has labored to restart the peace process. And while the administration has placed significant pressure on Israel to make concessions on borders, Jerusalem and settlements, one of the major demands on the Palestinians has been to halt the international bid for recognition.
Skeptical of the entire process after decades of fruitless negotiations, the Palestinians have nevertheless abided by this demand. But they have also made it clear that they continue to study steps to join UN treaties and bodies. Even amidst the peace talks, the Palestinians have used the 194 campaign as leverage. In early November, for example, the Palestinian Monetary Authority announced that it had obtained full membership in the International Association of Deposit Insurers. Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath also warned that the Palestinians could use the “weapon” of taking claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court. Shaath added, “There are organizations that await our application, and ask us when are we applying.”
Abbas himself has threatened, "If we don't obtain our rights through negotiations, we have the right to go to international institutions." Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi also warned that the Palestinian leadership was ready to join sixteen agencies beginning in April 2014. "Everything is in place and will be set in motion,” Ashrawi claimed. By late December, Saeb Erekat told Maan News Agency that there were no less than sixty-three member agencies of the UN that the PLO sought to join.
And while the exact strategy has not been released, on January 25, Maan News Agency reported that a PLO committee had reached an internal agreement on how to “take the Palestinian plight to the UN and its various bodies.” This included “signing international conventions and joining UN agencies and different bodies.” Among the most important of these bodies was said to be the International Criminal Court (ICC), “because that will enable the PA to sue the Israeli occupation over war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Israeli officials quietly admit that the ICC is only one agency on a short list of international bodies that they view as red lines. They include the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and INTERPOL. The concern for Israel is not that, not only would the Palestinians gain acceptance as a state through these agencies (and do so outside of the bilateral peace process), but that the Palestinians would also try to isolate Israel from these agencies, which are crucial to Israeli commerce, security and/or diplomacy.
Other Palestinian memberships would simply be insulting. For example, Palestinians seek to join FIFA and then disqualify Israel from the international soccer association. Indeed, Israel is growing increasingly concerned that the Palestine 194 campaign is about to become part of the larger strategy of Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS). The campaign has scored some small successes in academia, with a handful of European businesses joining, too. But should the majority of UN member states embrace the strategy of shunning Israel from multiple international organizations, BDS could evolve into a real threat to Israel’s legitimacy.
The Palestinians, for their part, know that if they take new steps in this direction, it will open up a whole new front in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This explains, in part, why Palestinian officials have kept a lid on their strategy. However, Palestinian officials in the past have been quick to point out that they do not view the Palestine 194 campaign as antithetical to bilateral negotiations with Israel. Indeed, they see it as a means to enhance their negotiating position. But now that talks are ongoing, Palestinian officials will not discuss how this dual-track strategy works, particularly in light of U.S. opposition to the 194 track. Instead, Palestinian officials articulate their full-throated support of the Kerry initiative. At least most of the time.
For Washington, there is more at stake here than a Nobel Prize for Obama, Kerry and Indyk. Washington maintains its laws prohibiting the funding of UN agencies when the PLO gains membership. That law did not change following the UNESCO debacle. This, of course, means that the US could be forced to choose between the State of Palestine and sixty-three different UN agencies.
Some may not seem like a loss—such as the International Olive Council. However, others, such as the World Health Organization or the International Court of Justice, could be bruising.
Worryingly, despite the clear signs that such a campaign may be renewed with the collapse of the U.S-led peace talks Washington has given little thought to what happens next. State Department officials working on the peace track acknowledge that Palestinian plans may be in the making, but few will cede that a peace-process breakdown is even possible, let alone imminent. Other officials at Foggy Bottom note the potential threat of the 194 campaign to U.S. interests, in light of the fact that it could prompt Washington to break off from multiple international organizations. They insist that there is regular communication with the Palestinians and the relevant agencies on this issue, but it is unclear whether the U.S. government is in any way prepared for the moment the campaign gets underway. For example, Congress rebuffed the president when he sought waivers during the UNESCO battle, and it has since turned away the executive on multiple occasions when other waivers have been requested.
What this means for Washington is not yet clear. But it is clear that the Palestinians have a ready-made policy to pursue should the current talks break down. Unlike in 2000, when the collapse in diplomacy prompted a violent intifada, this failure will yield a diplomatic intifada, whereby the Palestinians pressure Israel using their leverage with the international community. It’s nonviolent, but its war by other means. And it’s likely that Washington will be caught in the crossfire.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Grant Rumley is a visiting fellow at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0.