Recent events at the United Nations confirmed what has been blindingly obvious for months: the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is dead. Furthermore, with elections scheduled in the United States, Palestine, and perhaps Israel in the next twelve months, it is hard to imagine that any meaningful negotiations can overcome the political realities in each country. As a result, the United States will come under increasing pressure to relinquish its decades-old monopoly on peacemaking, particularly at a time when its influence and reputation in the Middle East is deeply threatened. Under such scenarios, the obvious question that is raised is what could be next?
If we had any doubt about where the “peace process” is headed, the much-anticipated appearances of Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN made clear the cold reality of where we are. Both stressed the historical grievances and deep-seated existential fears that have made the conflict between their peoples so intractable. At times, it seemed that each was making closing arguments in a courtroom drama rather than preparing for hard bargaining and historical compromises. President Obama had spoken before them in a vain attempt to discourage the Palestinian bid and urge direct talks. On the latter, no one, not even Obama himself, really believed this was a possibility.
With domestic considerations high on their agendas, all three leaders spoke as much to their audiences at home as they did to each other. Yet, in the long run, it will be the audiences in the volatile Middle East that will matter. This fact is something Abbas understood and Obama got horribly wrong.
For weeks, Abbas endured unrelenting American and Israeli pressure to abandon his bid for UN membership. He had also been coordinating with the Arab states on what looked to be the more realistic goal of upgrading Palestine to a non-member observer state of the UN. In the end, Abbas chose—and chose alone—to take the most difficult route, through the Security Council for full membership of the world body.
Abbas’s address in the General Assembly has already entered Palestinian folklore for its defiance and courage. He proclaimed that “Palestine is reborn,” yet it was also Abbas himself who had been born again as the leader of the Palestinian people. Indeed, he has wrested the Palestinian cause from the grasp of other regional powers and made it his own. The baton first raised by Yasser Arafat in the same hall in 1974 has been handed to Abbas.
Yet, in taking on the mantle, Abbas has made clear that there will be no negotiations until certain conditions are met, in particular the end of all Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Furthermore, he has directly challenged the U.S. monopoly on peacemaking, otherwise known as the “peace process.” Abu Mazen’s patience finally ran out for the endless incrementalism that characterized the “process” and which seemed to place conditions solely on the Palestinians, while Israel continued to take Palestinian land and Netanyahu played for time. Abbas’s deep disappointment with Obama personally led him to believe that the United States neither has the will nor the ability to act as the even-handed broker that the situation requires. Rather than trust an unreliable U.S. peacebroker, Abbas has chosen to internationalize the dispute by taking it to the UN, thereby leveling the playing field for future negotiations.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu evoked his country’s deep existential fears that have driven him personally and politically. In doing so, he reminded the audience at the UN and perhaps more importantly, the Israelis themselves of the unique vulnerabilities that their country faces. While he proclaimed his readiness to start negotiations without preconditions, Netanyahu’s dismissal of Abbas’s call to halt settlement building and his insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state will not bring Abbas back to the negotiating table—a fact Netanyahu already knew. In any case, the Israeli Prime Minister’s main audience was neither the Palestinians nor the UN—the “house of many lies”—but rather the Israelis and U.S. presidential candidates that will face their electorate in just over a year.
As the Palestinian and Israeli leaders spoke at the UN, the Middle East Quartet—United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN Secretary-General – was meeting to hammer out their much-anticipated statement to urge negotiations—or, more likely, to stop the Palestinian bid that would undermine their efforts. Over the years, the U.S.-led Quartet has developed a habit of only producing statements when the United States is in need of one.
The latest Quartet statement should be its last. Building on the body’s reputation of putting forth deadlines recognized by no one, it proposed timelines for negotiations yet offered no substance that could push the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Even by the standards of the past few years, this was “peace processing” gone wild. What had preceded the announcement were spirited discussions on the “terms of references” for future negotiations, including borders, security, and Israel’s insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state. However, time ran out without the Quartet’s members agreeing even on the most basic positions. Most disturbingly, and for the first time in Obama’s presidency, there was no reference to Israeli settlement construction. The obvious question remains: how can the Quartet convince Abbas and Netanyahu what is good for them when they themselves cannot agree on the basic conditions for peacemaking?
For Obama and his administration, one can only feel disappointment. The president did the right thing by taking on the critical job of attempting to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace from day one. In doing so, however, he raised the mistrust of Israelis and their supporters at home, something from which he has yet to recover. Today, there is a growing realization that the United States cannot be the only leader of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. At the UN, Arabs, Europeans, and those from the newly emerging powers such as Brazil, India, Russia and China speak openly about the diminished credibility of the United States. More deeply, its perceived weakness on this issue is seen as symptomatic of the general decline in U.S. power in global affairs. There is also concern that there currently is no effective mechanism to manage fires that may be ignited in the region as a result of the breakdown in relations between Israelis and Palestinians, let alone make peace.
With negotiations dead and not likely to be revived any time soon, a fresh approach to Arab- Israeli peace making is urgently needed. The internationally agreed-upon goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, is fading and urgently requires new management. The U.S. monopoly (yet not necessarily its leadership) of peacemaking is over. The drive for Arab-Israeli peace needs to include a broader range of international actors, including the Arab states, Europe and Turkey and for them to coordinate with such new world powers as China and India. Rather than obsessing over stopping it, the current action at the UN can be turned in to an opportunity where such a coalition comes together. The current situation may in fact be bringing these players together, with France and key Arab states already leading the talk in the corridors of the UN.
A great deal has already been written about Abbas’s gambit at the UN for full membership, and much more will be written about the different scenarios that could play out in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly in the weeks ahead. By challenging the U.S.-led “peace process” paradigm, Abbas may have already achieved his objectives, regardless of whether he can achieve full UN membership for Palestine now. For now, Abbas has chosen confrontation with the United States, but this need not be the future.
Abbas can be instrumental in constructing a new paradigm at the UN that the United States and the rest of the international community should support. Sixty-one years after Resolution 181, a new UN General Assembly resolution that again sets the goal of a new Palestinian state alongside Israel is necessary. Abbas should be offered, and he should accept, Palestine as a non-member state with observer status at the UN. The new UN resolution enabling the upgrade in status should also enshrine in international law commonly known parameters on the core issues of the borders of a future Palestinian state with Israel, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem. In addition, it should recognize Israel’s security concerns and demand a complete halt to all Israeli settlement building. Such a resolution would bind all Palestinians and Arab countries to the internationally agreed-upon goal of two states and once again offer Israelis a historic opportunity to choose peace and an end to their conflict with the Palestinians. Such a resolution would offer the basis for future direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine. With events on the ground threatening to re-ignite violence, there is no time to lose.