The decision reminded anyone who needed reminding that Palestine is still occupied, and that the PA simply cannot turn into a sovereign government – or exercise sovereignty – so long as the occupation continues.
Removing the occupation requires a new political direction other than the tired one of bilateral negotiations based on the Oslo process, under sole American stewardship, and according to the machinations of the perfidious International Quartet.
The decision by the Palestinian leadership to seek observer status from the UN General Assembly thus gains added importance. Although both PLO Chief Negotiator Saeb Ereikat and PA FM Riad al-Maliki both announced that the Palestinians would lodge their application on September 27th, the exact timing for holding a vote at the General Assembly is yet to be determined and awaits a meeting of the Arab League follow-up committee scheduled for early September.
It is obvious from recent Palestinian statements, analyses, and documents that there is still trepidation and hesitation among Palestinian officials to fully commit to the UN course. Many Palestinian officials are torn between the desire to stop the increasing marginalization of the Palestinian cause on the one hand, and fear of the step's potential political, economic, and diplomatic ramifications on the other.
This sense of uncertainty is reflected in the fact that while the decision to go to the UN has already been made, there are still calls to consider its potential consequences and sound out some countries and regional and international bodies as to its wisdom and feasibility – as if the move has not been considered and studies enough since 2009 till now. In fact, the original deadline was last September, after President Abbas made his historic speech at the UN.
Palestinian misgivings are also demonstrated in the fact that meetings with the Israeli side (between Ereikat and [advisor to PM Netanyahu] Yitzhak Molkho) continue, as are Arab and international efforts designed to kick-start the moribund peace talks. In fact, the Palestinian leadership seems prepared to postpone lodging its application for observer status until November 29th – the international day of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The rationale behind such a decision is that since the U.S. presidential election is scheduled for November 4th, it would be unwise to antagonize the Obama administration by acting before that date. Doing so, the argument goes, would cause President Obama to adopt punitive measures against the Palestinians in order to enhance his electoral chances.
This is a flawed opinion, which, if taken to its logical conclusion would lead to further postponements. Would it not be wiser, after all, to give Obama (assuming that he wins) one last chance to deliver something, especially as it is widely believed that an American President would be less influenced by pro-Israeli pressure groups in his second term? This possibility is made more plausible by reported leaks that Obama promised he would work harder in his second term to achieve what he failed in the first – a settlement of the Palestinian – Israeli conflict.
In fact, some even believe that, should Mitt Romney win in November, Obama would be prepared to use the period between Election Day and the inauguration of his successor to give the Palestinians all or part of what he denied them during his presidency.
Palestinian hesitation and procrastination cannot be justified. This position could either lead to abandoning the idea of going to the UN in the first place, or to the taking of partial steps as happened last year and so far this year when the Palestinians applied for full membership but failed to back it up by calling for a vote at the UN Security Council because they had not secured the nine votes necessary – although they knew beforehand that they could not do so. In fact, there were calls to take the case to the General Assembly instead of the Security Council, but these were not heeded despite the fact that such a step would have won support from many nations, including Europe.
As it happened, Abbas's [September 2011] speech and lodging the request to the Security Council represented the end of the Palestinian endeavor rather than the beginning – notwithstanding the fact that Palestine was subsequently elected as a full member of UNESCO.
Palestinian policy as it stands simply cannot take effective qualitative steps. There are several reasons for this, among which are the limited options it has available, indecision about the feasibility of a new direction, and the destructive split. That is why the Palestinian leadership is still banking on a resumption of peace talks, while using the UN effort as a pressure tactic to achieve that dubious objective. This is precisely the fatal weakness of such a policy, one that makes those who call for resuming talks unconditionally sound sensible.
The decision to go to the UN can only be effective if it is part of a new and comprehensive strategy that envisages taking the entire Palestinian cause (not only the question of statehood) to the UN and its relevant agencies, and to require that the international organization take responsibility for enforcing the resolutions it passed. Such a move should be an alternative to the futile peace process that has been adopted for the last twenty years – but which has only led to more settlements, more occupation, the virtual loss of Jerusalem, division, and unprecedented marginalization.
The Palestinian leadership must understand the futility of bilateral peace talks, especially as current developments in Israel and the Arab world make it highly unlikely that negotiations could deliver a meaningful settlement. Unless the leadership understands this, and appreciates the importance of internationalization as an alternative, we would only be wasting time, which would only lead to further erosion of the Palestinian cause.
If, for argument's sake, we assume that the Palestinian leadership, consciously or otherwise, as an initiative or as a reaction, carries through its threat, goes to the UN and succeeds in securing observer status, it will surely be subjected to U.S. and Israeli sanctions. Not only will financial aid be cut off and the PLO office in Washington closed down, there is the real possibility that Israel would annex the Jordan Valley and major settlements in the West Bank and adopt more unilateral measures designed to impose its own version of a settlement.
What is more serious is that such a step could lead to the loss of the PLO's political role – a loss that, unlike financial sanctions, cannot be replaced. Should the Palestinian leadership go to the UN without first putting in place an alternative strategy capable of unifying the people and the various Palestinian factions on patriotic and democratic foundations, it could find itself on the verge of collapse if sanctions were imposed. This would cause it either to return to bilateral talks for fear of what could be worse – or the latter (chaos, a breakdown of law and order, and a total collapse of the Palestinian cause) could actually happen.
Going to the UN is a serious step that affects not only the Palestinians but also the plans of the U.S. and Israel to maintain their grip on the entire region at a tumultuous juncture. If the Palestinian leadership really wishes to change course, it must be prepared for the consequences by providing the people with the requirements for steadfastness and victory.
If, on the other hand, the leadership wishes to go to the UN without antagonizing anyone, then all it has to do is wait (as it is doing now), or to submit to U.S./Israeli diktats and stop threatening to go to the UN. Without adequate preparation, such threats are empty and would backfire on the Palestinians.
If the leadership believes that it is futile to enter into a confrontation at a time of turmoil in the Arab world, and at a time when the Palestinian cause is weakened and marginalized, then let it be frank with its people and tell them so. This is despite the fact that confrontation is necessary and unavoidable – as long as it is conducted in a studied manner and as part of a comprehensive new strategy.
In fact, confrontation – even if gradual - could offer salvation as long as the necessary will, vision, and readiness are there to fulfil the Palestinians' national aspirations however long that takes and however costly the sacrifices.