Palestine's Plan for when Peace Talks Fail
A new UN struggle might jeopardize America's participation in dozens of international fora.
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.