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.
In his speech at the General Assembly, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in effect rejected the 1967 borders and complete Israeli evacuation of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, by asserting that this would leave Israel's centers of population—Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal area—and its international airport at Lydda extremely vulnerable to rocketing from the edge of the West Bank and allow for a flood of armaments to cross the Jordan into the Palestinian territory. He highlighted Israel's concern about a militarized West Bank by pointing to the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, which almost instantly became a Hamas stronghold, from which that organization showered southern Israel with rockets. Netanyahu argued, repeating President Obama's assertion at the General Assembly two days before, that the Palestinians must first negotiate and sign peace with Israel; only then should they receive recognition of statehood from the international community (much as the Jewish community in Palestine first accepted partition and the principle of Palestinian Arab statehood before the UN accepted Israel as a member state in May 1949, 18 months later). Netanyahu also called on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
Many Jewish Israelis dislike and/or distrust Netanyahu and the sincerity of his pacific asseverations—he repeatedly asserted Israel's readiness to enter into negotiations immediately and in good faith—but they share his concerns about Israel's future security and distrust of Palestinian intentions and peace-keeping capabilities. Who is to assure that anything signed by Abbas will be adhered to by the fundamentalist Hamas which, after all, won the Palestinian general elections in 2006 and openly declares its intention to destroy Israel?
Abbas, in his speech at the General Assembly, completely ignored Israel's security concerns, concentrating on the suffering of his people since the nakba, their catastrophic defeat in 1948, which resulted in the displacement and eventual refugeedom of two-thirds of the Palestinians. He highlighted Palestinian difficulties in obtaining medical care (when thousands of Palestinians are treated each year in Israeli hospitals) and implicitly denied the Jews' connection to the Land of Israel (he mentioned only Mohammed and Jesus when speaking of the "Holy Land,” somehow forgetting that the Jews had preceded these two prophets in the country by more than a thousand years). He had only ill to speak of Israel, brandishing the usual epithets of "Apartheid,” "racism" and "colonialism,” contributing to the ongoing delegitimization of the Jewish state in the international arena. Abbas, who had defied strong international pressures (especially by Obama) to pull back from the statehood bid, returned to a hero's welcome in the West Bank.
Abbas, who took over as the Palestinian leader after the death of the charismatic Arafat in 2004, until now has been seen as somewhat grey and lifeless. But this past week he has basked in more applause than during his previous 76 years. Indeed, at the General Assembly he was repturously welcomed and repeatedly cheered by the delegations of most of the 193 member states. (Netanyahu later spoke to a partially empty, largely hushed hall and was cheered mainly by the Israeli delegates.) The Palestinians hope that the UN will accept "Palestine" as its 194th member.
The number "194" actually cropped up in Abbas's speech—but in a slightly different connection. He was referring to UN General Assembly Resolution 194, of 11 December 1948, as the necessary basis for the solution of the Palestinian refugee problem. That resolution states: The General Assembly "resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date" or, if uninterested in returning, receive compensation instead. The Palestinians, of all political persuasions, regard the resolution as endorsing "the right of return" and demand that Israel allow the 5 million Palestinians registered with the UN as refugees to return to their homes and lands in pre-1967 Israel.
Jewish Israelis, almost to a man, regard the demand as the Palestinians' preferred mechanism to demographically undermine and destroy the Jewish state (which currently has a population of close to six million Jews and 1.3 million Arabs). The fact that Abbas has repeatedly and consistently refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to endorse a peace settlement that is based on President Clinton's formula of "two states for two peoples" only sharpens Israeli suspicions that Abbas is really aiming for Israel's dissolution in stages—first, achieve a Palestinian West Bank-Gaza state without giving Israel peace in exchange, then mount an assault on the remaining rump Jewish state. Many Israelis view the current Palestinian bid for statehood in this context.
Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His most recent book is One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009).