UN-Bound: Palestinian Strategies and Dilemmas

MDC Senior Researcher Dr. Ephraim Lavie explores the challenges and hopes in the lead up to the PA-initiated UN vote for Palestinian statehood.

After considerable hesitation and deliberation, the Palestinian national leadership has decided to officially turn to the United Nations next month, and ask for formal diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state and membership in the international body. It did so after concluding that Israel has no intention of negotiating a permanent settlement on the basis of the June 4, 1967, boundaries or stopping settlement building. The Palestinians' main goal in going to the United Nations is to unfreeze the diplomatic stalemate and to ensure that future negotiations with Israel will be based on 1967 borders.

Nonetheless, the Palestinian leadership is aware of the risks involved. It wants to avoid rupturing its relations with Israel and damaging its ties with Western leaders who are pressuring it not to exercise the UN option. On the ground, the Palestinian leadership very much wants to maintain the existing calm and continue its state-building efforts in the institutional and economic realms. Overall, the leadership is concerned about three potential dangers in the wake of its UN initiative: the loss of national legitimacy and exposure of the PA's weaknesses in the event of failure at the United Nations; the end of the extended period of calm and a renewal of violent confrontation with Israel; and resulting damage to the PA’s relations with the United States, which could result in a loss of vital aid.

On the security front, commanders of the various Palestinian security forces worry that mass popular protests could escalate to the point of violence, and cause them to lose control over the territories. In the absence of security coordination with Israel, they estimate that they will not have the ability to enforce law and order, which may then result in the reemergence of quasi-independent militias and overall anarchy. The Palestinian Authority's economic leadership, from Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on down, fears the severe damage an escalation would wreak upon the Palestinian economy, as well as the negative effect of possible Israeli measures taken in response to the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations. In their view, the Palestinian Authority must avoid taking far-reaching, drastic actions, such as a unilateral withdrawal from the unified customs regime with Israel. Instead, the PA needs to sustain cooperation with Israel in order to implement Fayyad’s development plan for 2011-2013, which he wants to apply to "Area C" (the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control), as well. 

Palestinian legal advisors see the UN’s recognition of a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967, borders and with Jerusalem as its capital, as a move that would alter the status of those areas: from that point on, they would be considered territory of the State of Palestine under occupation. They believe that ensuing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian state would then have to focus on how to implement Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories. These advisors believe that although formal statehood would come about through a one-sided discussion that Israel opposes, Israel would have to respect the decision of the international community, and to cooperate with the Palestinians to implement it on the ground. However, the Palestinian leadership assumes that Israel will oppose any attempt to impose a solution implementing Palestinian sovereignty over the disputed territory, and that Israel would not even hesitate to take action against the PA’s institutions and security apparatuses. The "day after" a UN General Assembly decision to recognize the State of Palestine, in its view, will certainly not entail an Israeli willingness to reach understandings with the PA regarding the gradual transfer of civil and security authority in Areas B and C.

It is increasingly evident that in order to reduce potential damage in the realms of politics, security and economics, in the wake of UN recognition the Palestinian leadership will petition the General Assembly to raise the Palestine Liberation Organization's level of UN representation from that of permanent observer to non-member observer state; this confers the right to participate in debates but not to vote on resolutions. The Palestinian leadership could present the UN’s decision as a significant step toward full membership, a political achievement that would enable participation in international organizations that usually allow only member states, such as the International Criminal Court, as well as something that would motivate other countries to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.

The Palestinian security apparatuses are preparing for the possibility that Palestinian youths will attempt to organize mass demonstrations to protest against Israel’s continued occupation. Commanders are formulating plans to contain and delimit these events. They intend to allow rallies of limited scope on predetermined dates and routes in the centers of Palestinian cities, away from areas near Israeli lines and where security forces are deployed. In this way, they intend to prevent protesters from attacking Israeli checkpoints and blocking roads, thus avoiding possible clashes with Israeli forces and settlers. Senior PA officials have declared that they will instruct security forces to refrain entirely from opening fire on Palestinian protestors and IDF forces alike.

The Palestinian leadership also believes that it is in Israel’s interest to ensure the existence of the PA and maintain security and stability. The prevailing view is that Israel would prefer, when necessary, to use non-lethal means to disperse demonstrations, and would demand that existing interim agreements be maintained. It can be assumed that after attaining a UN decision to raise the PLO’s status, the PA leadership will ask Israel to continue security coordination with it, refrain from attempting to establish new facts on the ground and express its desire to renew negotiations with Israel to achieve a permanent settlement based on the 1967 borders.

It seems fair to assume that Palestinian popular unrest will emerge if the UN initiative does not produce a renewal of the diplomatic process in a way which achieves tangible progress. The Palestinian national leadership would be forced to admit to the public that it had failed to achieve its central goal. Palestinian youth believe in the value of struggling to achieve national independence, and most feel that the time has come to take action to end the Israeli occupation and establish a state. They have gained considerable experience in recent years in organizing grassroots political action, using tools of mass communication to formulate and express their views, manage the struggle against the occupation and express disapproval of the PA government. All of these can be called up in an instant if the political deadlock continues after the UN vote.

Ephraim Lavie is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.