The Grave Dangers of a Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence

August 26, 2011 by Emanuele Ottolenghi
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The diplomatic offensive that the Palestinian Authority launched last year to persuade the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state will come to fruition this September. Unless there is a last-minute turnaround, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials are determined to forge ahead, despite an already-announced US veto at the Security Council…writes Emanuele Ottolenghi.

Emanuele Ottolenghi

European governments are scrambling to find a unified EU position while bickering about the desirability of such a move.

What would be the consequences of a Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI)?

To pour water on the fire and persuade hesitant, mostly European governments to support their bid, Palestinian spokespersons have insisted that their effort is innocuous. At a recent closed door meeting on the prospects of UDI, held last January in a European capital, one high ranking official called it a “post-dated check” and admitted that the PA had no working plans to enforce its declaration on the ground. By their own admission, Palestinians, despite their efforts to obtain recognition, do not aspire to actually establish a state through the vote. Pressed about questions such as border controls, issuance of passports or national currency, control of water resources and airspace, supply of electricity from Israel, manning the checkpoints inside the West Bank, on the Green Line and along the Jordanian border, the PA team had no answer to offer. Their goal, this official insisted, was to cash in on a recognition that Palestine has slowly been gaining over the last twenty years and use the newly acquired status to put Israel on the defensive.

Since then, Palestinian officials have voiced this view publicly. PA Foreign Minister, Nabil Shaath announced in an interview with Arabic News Broadcast on July 13, that “This act… will enable us to exert pressure on Israel. At the end of the day, we want to exert pressure on Israel, in order to force it to recognize us and to leave our country. This is our long-term goal.” More than an effort to establish a state, the September diplomatic offensive at the UN looks like a maneuver to extract more concessions from Israel through international pressure, without the need for the PA to offer anything in return.

Like other PA officials, Shaath is not resigned to the fact that Israelis and Palestinians can only ever hope to coexist in peace if a two-state-for-two-people formula is implemented through negotiations. Many before him have put their trust in confrontational approaches, in the hope that once cornered, Israel would concede more. In this, they keep with Palestinian precedent – chiefly, with Yasser Arafat’s theory of al-huroub ila al-amam (escape by running forward). Arafat applied this principle in September 2000, when, rather than accept a peace plan that fell short of all his people’s aspirations, he launched the Second Intifada against Israel.

His logic was simple – create a chaotic situation that leans the balance of power  in the Palestinians’ favor. The problem with such approach is that it has always had disastrous consequences for the Palestinians – and there is no guarantee that this time will be different. The Second Intifada only temporarily improved the Palestinians’ negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. In the long term, it hurt their cause significantly and delayed their path to statehood.

Unwilling to negotiate with Israel and unable to convince Israel to surrender to Palestinian demands, Arafat’s successors are about to repeat his mistake. By creating a crisis that could dramatically up the ante, they seek to avoid the difficult predicament of hard strategic choices, and enable the Palestinians – if all goes well – to reap significant diplomatic benefits from the wave of international recognition and support that could dramatically improve their diplomatic position in the event that negotiations were to resume.

But it is far from certain that this will be the case, beyond the short-term gain of recognition, diplomatic upgrade of Palestinian missions abroad to embassy status, and possibly the ability to confront and challenge Israel more effectively through legal means in the international arena. UDI could very well put the Palestinian Authority farther away, rather than closer, to real statehood.

The risk with this approach is that it will likely trigger an escalation on the ground, lead to Israeli unilateral responses, and unleash a crisis that will reverberate far beyond the region.

First, Israel may view a Palestinian unilateral move as a breach of the Oslo Accords and move to nullify them. Critics of this approach note that the end of the Oslo Accords would reinstate Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power in the West Bank and would require a return of Israel’s civil administration to deliver services. Instead, Israel will view its obligations as an occupying power superseded by the Palestinian declaration and proceed to unilaterally annex vast swaths of territory in the West Bank – very likely the Jordan Valley, the large settlements of Ariel, Ma’alei Adumim and the Etzion Bloc. Israel will also retain control of the access roads to smaller and more remote settlements and may decide to annex them too. Secondly, as noted violence may spiral out of control – its pattern could very well follow the events of late September 2000.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already urged “Arab Spring-like popular resistance” to support UDI; and jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti recently openly invoked “struggle and resistance on the ground”. If heeded, these calls could easily lead to a Palestinian version of the al-Nakba and al-Naksa Syrian- and Iranian-orchestrated provocations against Israel that occurred along the Israel-Lebanon border and the Syrian-Israel ceasefire line late last spring. Inside the West Bank, against the backdrop of a UDI and a complete breakdown in the peace process, these recurrences could quickly escalate into a full-fledged conflict. Such a clash, in the end, and not an empty UN General Assembly resolution, would define the future borders of Palestine and, indeed, its very existence.

Violence is always a possibility in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, but this time an escalation could conceivably spill over and inflame the region. The previous Intifada occurred against the backdrop of a very stable regional system, where moderate Arab regimes were firmly in control of their polities. While images of violence inflamed their public opinions, Arab regimes could afford to offer little, beyond the customary rhetoric of condemnation, to Arab indignation.

In 2011, the backdrop of the Arab Spring offers a different picture – one where rampant populism, dramatic economic setbacks, revolutionary transitions, and fragile regimes fighting for their own survival, all conjure up a very different Arab response to an Israeli-Palestinian flare-up.

The terrorist attacks against an Israeli bus and private cars along the Israeli-Egyptian border on August 18 and the decision, less than 24 hours later, by Hamas to unilaterally end a ceasefire with Israel and launch a barrage of rockets against Israeli population centers highlighted the potential for radical forces to exploit volatility to ensure that violence spirals out of control. Egypt’s confrontational response to Israel – and its denial that its forces have lost control of the Sinai Peninsula – may be a harbinger of things to come as tensions escalate between Israel and the PA.

Radical forces are keen to exploit any whiff of instability in the region to advance their agendas – Iran in particular may choose to turn Hezbollah against Israel both as a way to heat up the region and to consolidate its control in the Land of the Cedars. It should not be forgotten that the moderate Arab regimes in the region – which includes the GCC countries, Jordan, Morocco, and of course Tunisia and Egypt prior to their domestic upheavals – have always been primarily concerned about regime survival but also about Iran’s rising influence in the region.

Recent developments are strengthening some of these concerns. Civil war in Libya was exploited to smuggle better weapons to Gaza; Egypt’s revolution offered an opportunity to radicals to improve their presence and activities in the Sinai Peninsula; Syria’s uprising has become the new frontline in the battle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran; Yemen’s uprising has curtailed any Western anti-terror activity in the troubled country – and so on. For radicals, a looming conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would be a godsend. Those regimes that have so far weathered the storm of internal unrest would probably act with the same measured restraint adopted eleven years ago. But for those regimes in transition – Egypt first and foremost – things would be different and the temptation to be dragged into an escalation against Israel would be stronger than in the past.

In such a volatile situation, UDI could supply the spark and the fuel for a regional conflagration.

Finally, another important development which has been neglected in virtually all discussions of the UDI and its consequences is the fact that a recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN with the 1949 armistice lines as its borders and East Jerusalem as its capital would nullify the stipulations of UN Security Council Resolution 242 – the foundational document and the central legal basis for any peace process in the region. A collapse in negotiations and the attempt by the Palestinian Authority to get a border settlement decided by a UN vote rather than through direct negotiations would spell the death of 242 and put to rest any notion of a peace process for a long time to come.

Against the backdrop of mounting violence, attempts to exploit the UN vote diplomatically through Israel’s isolation in Europe and legally through challenges at the International Court of Justice and in other UN forums will not change the situation on the ground – as indeed Palestinians failed to do over the past 11 years.

In short, UDI is a recipe for conflict – one where at best the Palestinians can hope for a protracted stalemate where they might lose some ground and at worst the entire region could be dragged into conflict.

 Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies


13 Responses to “The Grave Dangers of a Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Rachel Black

    Semioticaly you are in complete error regarding “State independence” !
    More so when attempting an analogy in the case of Israel vis a vis the current Palestinian attempts. The expression “unilateral” independence means that a certain national entity declares independence within a certain geopolitical circumstance as an act of detachement from a certain governing authority WITHOUT the said authority agreeing to the independence.
    In the case of Israel, her independence was not objected to by ANY state,most importantly NOT by Great Britain,under whose mandate the Jewish national entity of the future Israel was at the time. Furthermore, it is of obvious importance that objections to the Palestinian attempt at unilateral inedpendence are recorded. Notwithstanding the majority in the General Assembly, the objections serve as statements of denial of State status of the unilateral declaration. It has diplomatic significance as well as a priori positions of a vast raft of denials to the objected independent state, its actions, dynamics of structures, indeed claims of legitimacy in multiple situations.
    The scheduled Palestinian act of defiance is a calculated strategy of intensifying the Palestinian policy of perpetual conflict with Israel.

  2. Rachel Black says:

    @david singer
    August 29, 2011 8:25 am at 8:25 am

    ‘You provide the perfect example for the editor of any web site refusing to publish any post that cannot be verified with a person’s name address and phone number and the person’s name being posted with each comment.”

    Sorry, I’m very new to this site, but why instead of demanding personal information like addresses and phone numbers, simply have a system like most other sites with comment sections, where a person must have a user name and password and be logged in in order to post? I’ve only recently seen what happens when people put personal details on the internet, and even though I didn’t agree with the political views of those who’d posted their names and phone numbers, I don’t think they deserved to get the abusive phone calls they got.

  3. Rachel Black says:

    Aren’t all declarations of independence by their very nature unilateral? Israel’s certainly was.

    Also, the US can’t veto Palestine being recognised as a state, as if a majority of states in the General Assembly vote in support, then the state is internationally recognised. What the US can do is veto any application in the Security Council for Palestine to become a full member state of the UN. That’s what looks likely to happen, which will have little effect but to add to the US record of by far outstripping other permanent members of the SC in using the veto, something the US actually complained about back when the USSR used to veto SC resolutions a fair bit.

  4. Otto Waldmann says:

    Radically realists Neil and his rhetorical attachement, Neel, bring to the table nothing but redundant prejudice, neurotic hubris, extrapolations of the most ridiculous kind, conclusively the type of “entertainment” best left in the foyers of legitimate exchanges. For what we see is the eternal regurgitation of populist hysteria, liberal use of terms and figures which for the fodder of vulgarity, incitement and permanence of destructive enagement.
    Neil has been told already somewhre else that his graph of demographis has been abanaoned long ago somewhere in the washing rooms of reality checks. Consistently,though, he remains loyal to his own limitations, misuse of rational being a chief one !
    Ottolenghi makes the most valid point. Palestinians, the way they have defined themselves ever since their political appearance, some fifty years ago, can only function by conflict. The seemingly imminent UDI is but a new stage in coagulating an entity to which parasitism of the financial and political natures,coupled orgaically with the MOST corrupt practices EVER and cruelty agaist their “natural” enemy, Jews everywhere, and against their second nature, their OWN people, is going to infest almost the entire humanity with the stench of their irreversible putred morality !!!
    This time they managed tomobilise a vast majority of UN members, thus gaining the endorsement of indiference, anti Semitic prejudice, state corruption of continental proportions ( see, if you can stomach, Africa and all muslim states ) and they will run with it. All that Ottolenghi predicted makes sense. All that we see before our eyes fixed on TV news as “springs” of what !!! revolution among faces transfixed with thirst of blood, revenge and destruction, concur impecably with what the “palestininans” have been bred to dream , i.e. murder Jews, whether with explosives attired upon their OWN people and slowly through all kinds of other moves and movements, BDS of late as a part of it.
    Do we need a Neil or Neel to teach us what decent survival means !! If this site would let me tell them where to go I’d happily do it in all the languages I know, the languages my past generations have learnt while constantly escaping all the Neils and Neels our tragic history has confronted us with. As the venimous mouth peaces of hatred, Neil and Neel, consider it it done.You can………………

  5. david singer says:

    To @david singer

    I don’t know who you are but your use of my name is offensive and shows the lengths people of your ilk are prepared to go to mislead and misrepresent. It is pretty gutless as well.

    You provide the perfect example for the editor of any web site refusing to publish any post that cannot be verified with a person’s name address and phone number and the person’s name being posted with each comment.

    For your information two and a half of the twelve Jewish tribes settled in Transjordan. The Jewish connection with Transjordan was long standing and continuous well before any Arabs ever set foot on its soil.

    Come on JWire editor – what are you going to do about these anonymous jerks who are trying to take over your web site?

    First a fake e mail address – now another stealing someone’s identity and posting views that are not those of the aggrieved person.

    I would urge you to use every effort to try and find and expose these low lifes or risk the reputation of your excellent web site being trashed.

    If someone is not prepared to put his real name to a post – then don’t print it. Seems a simple proposition to me.

  6. @david singer says:

    The land of Transjordan was never part of any ancient Jewish state. If Jews were hoping to re-establish a Jewish state they would never have settled in Transjordan anyway. Therefore the partition of Transjordan and Palestine is relevant.

    Looking at the population of of the Palestinian Mandate in 1947, 67% were Arab (1.2 million) and 33% were Jewish (600,000). Today the descendants of the 1.2 million Arabs are trying to create a state on less than 20% of the Palestinian Mandate.

  7. david singer says:

    To Neil

    I have previously drawn your attention to the dodgy stats used by you and repeated in your current post in relation to this article.

    You have not had the courtesy to reply and so I now post again my reply to you in the hope it might elicit a response.

    “Your thinking is a bit skewered.

    The history of modern Palestine did not begin in 1948. You just need to go back to 1920 to the Treaty of Sevres and the Mandate for Palestine laid out in that Treaty.

    Contrary to what was initially proposed – 78% of the area of Mandatory Palestine within which the Jewish National Home was to be reconstituted actually became a Jew-free and independent Arabs- only state of Transjordan in 1946. Round 1 to Arab residents of Palestine

    This left just 22% availialble for the Jewish National Home when the UN dealt with the issue in 1947.
    Of that 22% – 55% was recommended for a Jewish state and 45% for a second Arab state in Mandatory Palestine. The Jews said “yes” and the Arabs said “war”. Round 2 to Jewish residents of Palestine.

    What we now have in 2011 is the Jews sovereign in 17% Mandatory Palestine (Israel), the Arabs sovereign in 78% of Mandatory Palestine (Jordan) and just 5% – the West Bank and Gaza remaining unallocated between Arabs and Jews.

    Whilst we are talking figures – also remember the Arabs were offered 99.999% of the captured Ottoman Empire and the Jews just 0.001%. The Arabs have never accepted this division.

    How much of the pie can you eat before you get indigestion? The Arabs have been their own worst enemies.”

    I hope you respond this time.

  8. david singer says:

    To Neel

    Decisions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) are only binding on UN member States if they agree to be parties to any litigation. The Palestinian Authority (PA) can seek as many advisory opinions as it likes – they will all have no legal effect unless Israel agrees to submit to the jurisdiction of the ICJ.

    Given the appalling decision of the ICJ on the security barrier – where critical provisions of international law were not even considered and not even referred to in the brief submitted to the Court for its advisory opinion by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – Israel won’t very likely be going to that kangaroo court in the belief justice will be dispensed.

    Yes – twenty years is a long time to negotiate. Remember however the PA has rejected two offers made by Israel in 2001 and 2008. It is probably true that negotiations with the PA are most unlikely to be successful. If that turns out to be the case and negotiations are formally ended – then Israel will have to seek another Arab negotiating partner to resolve the issue of allocating sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza – which has remained undetermined since Great Britain pulled out in 1948.. The obvious Arab negotiating partners will be Jordan and possibly Egypt.

  9. jonathan says:

    Let’s face it, this is an arrogant Western colony ‘imposed’ in a place where it wasn’t asked for and where the original inhabitants don’t want them. They have taken the land, mainly by force, stealing the water and making sure they have sole access to the best and most fertile areas for agriculture,etc. Additionally the local indigenous population are disgracefully treated as 2nd class citizens. Even as new immigrants arrive they’re granted more rights than the peoples who have lived there for centuries. This is pure apartheid. What arrogant people!

    Anyway, writing from England, that’s enough about the continent of Australia, let’s talk now about the sliver of land called Israel…….

  10. Rita says:

    “…Unilaterelism (sic)………You must be ignorant of the fact that UN is the most multilateral organisation in this matter…”

    Hehehe, good one !

  11. Neil says:

    This writer seems to be just another apologist for Ben Gurions plan to declare a state of Israel on any slither of land and then expand the borders militarily.

    This has happened in:
    – 1930’s Peel commission recommendation – 30% of Palestine
    – 1948 partition plan – 55% of Palestine
    – 1949 warfare – 78% of Palestine
    – 1967 warfare – 100% of Palestine plus the Golan and Sinai Peninsular (since given back)
    – 2020 Zionists plan 100% of Palestine, the Golan, The East Bank of the Jordan river, Lebanon to the Litani River and the Sinai peninsular again.

    As Israel carries out the pointless negotiations it continues to steal land.

    Personally, I don’t mind if Israel was the whole of Palestine as long as it takes ALL the people.

    Unfortunately, Israel is wedded to Arab population movement to create and maintain an 80% Jewish state.

    People should consider: What would the demographics of Israel be today if the Massive Arab population movement did not take place in 1048/49.

    Relevant stats:
    – 6.2 million Jews in Israel in 2011
    – 1.5 million Arabs in Israel in 2011
    – 4.9 million Arabs registered with the UN in 2011
    ie 6.4 million Arabs that would have been resident without the Arab population movement

    The obvious answer is that as the Arab and Jewish populations would be approximately equal, Israel should be a bi-National state today.

    This is the reason that there is no peace.

    Israel wants the land but does not want the people.

    This fact is so obvious but desperately hidden by Israel.

    So. We wait for the vote.

    And prepare for BDS when it succeeds and Israel refuses to make any fair and decent moves.

    Will this get published? We wait to see if free speech exists outside the Israeli media of JPost and Haaretz. Censorship is greater outside Israel.

    Best Wishes

  12. Neel says:

    “legally through challenges at the International Court of Justice and in other UN forums will not change the situation on the ground”

    Do you not hold much respect or hope for the letter of the law? Do you really feel that it would simply be all good and dandy for Israel to ignore any ICC ruling against it?

    You keep blabbing on about negotiating,negotiating, negotiating, negotiating……….HOW LONG? The Palestinians have been negotiating for more than TWENTY years. What has it got them in return? NOTHING is the answer. If they could not achieve a state in 20 years, what makes you think if they go back to the table, Israel will alll so magically grant them a state in a couple of months?

    Unilaterelism………You must be ignorant of the fact that UN is the most multilateral organisation in this matter. How can you say that if someone asks every member of the UN to come together and decide on a matter is unilaterelism?? The world, itself will decide the fate, not the Palestinians on their own, of the outcome.

    Get your analysis right!

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