Until recently, the Palestinians have had a binary choice in their path to statehood—negotiate with Israel or fight Israel. Neither have proven successful. The policies of the international community have opened Palestinian eyes to a third way, pursuing Israel in international organisations to embarrass and weaken the Jewish state.
On 30 December, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution calling for a Palestinian state within two years. It fell one short of the required nine yes votes. Two countries—Australia and the US—voted no and four others abstained.
The Palestinian Authority was the driving force behind this initiative. I believe that not only did the Palestinians know the resolution wouldn’t pass (even if it had have received nine yes votes, the US would have vetoed it), they wanted the resolution to fail. It is worthwhile noting that France had been working with the Palestinian delegation on a less one-sided draft—in other words, one that might have passed. But the Palestinians rejected moderate language, insisting on a draft with fewer Palestinian concessions, and maximum Israeli concessions.
Why would Palestinians want to have a Security Council vote calling for a Palestinian state voted down? The Palestinian leadership has two main objectives: to attain statehood and to retain power. The second objective is much more important for the Palestinian leadership than the first. History has shown numerous times (most recently in 2000, 2001 and 2008) that, in any situation where the Palestinian leadership faces a choice between achieving statehood and retaining power, retaining power wins out.
The dilemma is caused because achieving statehood through negotiations with Israel will involve substantial concessions for both sides. These concessions are widely known and, for the Palestinians, will result in: having a Palestinian state in 22 per cent of what it considers ‘historic Palestine’ (i.e. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza); and no ‘right of return’.
The ‘Right of Return’
While most Palestinians have grudgingly accepted the first concession, few will concede the second. The Palestinian leadership has been promising a full right of return to Israel since the founding of the national movement in the 1960s. Any Palestinian leader that agrees to a state without the right of return will be seen to have betrayed the Palestinian cause, likely resulting in an assassin’s bullet.
(Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state, cannot agree to this ‘right of return’, because it would result in Jews becoming a minority in Israel, thereby creating two Palestinian states and no Jewish state. It thus argues—reasonably, in my opinion—that, following a final status peace agreement, the world’s Palestinians can immigrate to the State of Palestine (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and the world’s Jews can immigrate to the State of Israel.)
The refugee issue is, in my opinion, the principal reason the Palestinian leadership has rejected multiple Israeli offers of statehood.
For those who don’t know: What is the ‘right of return’?
In the 1947–49 Arab–Israel war, about 750,000 Palestinians Arabs became refugees. This mostly occurred in the first half of 1948. About half were kicked out by Jewish forces, and about half fled. The Palestinian leadership demands that these refugees and their descendants (today numbering in the millions) have the right to return to their former homes in what has become the State of Israel. This is not a right afforded any other refugee population.
Israel the Scapegoat
Notwithstanding the vexed question of refugees, the Palestinian leadership has long used the Israelis as scapegoats for everything wrong in Palestinian society. Crime, unemployment, corruption and lack of infrastructure are all blamed on the Israeli occupation. Were the occupation to end and a Palestinian state be established, the Palestinian leadership could no longer duck responsibility. Of all these failures, corruption will be the hardest to fix (and this is the problem for which Israel is the least responsible). For a Palestinian leadership historically reluctant to put its people’s future ahead of its own, this in and of itself is a reason not to achieve statehood and forms, in my opinion, the second most important reason the Palestinians have rejected statehood offers.
Role of the International Community
Given that the Palestinian leadership does not want to achieve statehood if doing so will threaten its rule, the international community could and should engineer a situation where the Palestinian leadership will not feel threatened by statehood. This could be done by implementing two policies. First, by tying future aid to Palestinian good governance, it could force the Palestinian leadership to rid its ranks of corruption (since the Palestinian economy is reliant on aid). The West has threatened such action in the past, but never delivered (which has taught the Palestinians that the West is a toothless tiger). If carried out, it would be a painful process, but ultimately be healthy for both the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people.
The refugee issue is far more problematic. However, the international community could provide political cover for the Palestinian leadership if the former were to: a) state quite plainly that the refugees and their descendants will definitely not be allowed to immigrate to Israel en masse as part of a peace agreement; and b) concurrently promise significant funds to integrate Palestinians into either their host populations, the new state of Palestine or third countries.
Although the above is possible, I don’t believe it is likely. As written about in far more detail in this post, the West blames Israel for the continuation of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. It thus places the onus on Israel to resolve problems and places diplomatic pressure on Israel to do so. And while this in and of itself isn’t a problem, almost all Israeli and Palestinian actions, whether good or bad, are filtered by Western commentators through the prism of ‘Israel is to blame for the lack of peace’. Thus, Palestinian actions that undermine peace (such as corruption, violence, unachievable promises and more) are seen as unfortunate but excusable actions of an occupied people. This would be harmless except for that fact that by providing Palestinians with aid and recognition without holding Palestinians to account for bad behaviour, the West has effectively rewarded bad behaviour and thus encouraged more of it.
The Palestinian leadership largely (though incorrectly) sees the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a zero sum game. That is, it believes that whenever Israel loses, the Palestinians win. With increasing condemnation of and pressure on Israel, the Palestinian leadership has come to the conclusion that it does not need to compromise with Israel. The world will continue pressuring Israel and will continue providing Palestinians with aid and recognition. And while the West will make statements about what it expects the Palestinians to do, it will not punish the Palestinians if they do not comply.
Palestinians Internationalise the Conflict
This leads us to the Palestinian objective in regards to the draft UN Security Council resolution.
Ahead of the vote, the Palestinians said that if the draft resolution were rejected, ‘Palestine’ would seek to join the International Criminal Court and other international organisations. Indeed, since the 30 December vote, the Palestinians have already signed the Rome Statute—the first step to acceding to the ICC.
As a member of the ICC, the Palestinians will seek to have Israel and individual Israelis prosecuted for war crimes committed on Palestinian territory. (The ICC only has jurisdiction in the territory of its members; it has no jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza until it accepts ‘Palestine’ as a member.)
Joining the ICC and other international bodies continues a trend that began a few years ago, and is the culmination of the trend cited in the opening paragraph of this post—that the Palestinian leadership has found a third way (the first being violence, the second being diplomacy—though at the cost of the leadership losing its rule) to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests without compromising.
And while this tactic has been and will continue to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests, it will not lead to a viable peace for two reasons. First, it further diminishes the little trust Israelis have that Palestinians want to live in peace with it. That doesn’t matter so much, since the Palestinians argue that the reason they are internationalising the conflict is because they have lost all trust in Israel. However, and second, pursuing Israel in the realm of ‘lawfare’ might well hurt Israel and provide the Palestinian leadership with a short-term bump in popularity (which the UN Security Council vote achieved), but it will do nothing to address the chronic obstacles blocking the path between the current reality and a viable Palestinian state. Some of these obstacles have nothing to do with Israel. Others are associated with the Israeli occupation, but will only be overcome when Israelis and Palestinians work together in good faith. (Which is not to say that Israelis are blameless—far from it. But this is clearly an example of Palestinians shooting themselves in the foot for short-term advantage.)
But let’s say I’m wrong. What if UN condemnations, ICC prosecutions and even sanctions by countries such as Australia (which is what some people are calling for) successfully pressure Israel into withdrawing from the entirety of the West Bank (including those parts of Jerusalem that the Palestinians claim)? The occupation will have ended.
But the Palestinian economy is entirely dependent on Israel. The majority of its exports and imports go to and come from Israel. Its electricity and much of its water is supplied by Israel. Many Palestinians find work in Israel or the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, the West Bank has no airport and no access to the sea; it is reliant on Israel for all international imports and exports. If Israel is forced through condemnations, prosecutions and sanctions to withdraw from the West Bank, you can bet it will have nothing to do with the new State of Palestine. No goods or services will cross the Israel–Palestine border. Any product entering Gaza (which has a port on the Mediterranean) will likely not be allowed to cross into Israel and then into the West Bank. The Palestinian economy will crash. Violence and chaos will be the result. Terrorist groups will also turn their guns on Israel, which will be forced to intervene to protect its citizens.
And so on. If Israelis and Palestinians want a peaceful future, they must cooperate. And while both sides continue to pursue unhelpful policies, trust (and, with it, good will) diminishes and the possibility for cooperation further evaporates. The Palestinian move to go to the Security Council, lose on purpose and then use it as a pretext to join the ICC and other international organisations is one of the most significant such unhelpful moves in the last 10 years.