Palestine Isn’t Waiting for Netanyahu

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A Palestinian man reads a local newspaper, which features the Israeli election on its front page, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, March 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration, in his recent interview to the NRG website, that a Palestinian state will not be founded on his watch, wasn’t major news to the Palestinians and shouldn’t be big news for Israelis. His conduct throughout his service as prime minister made it clear he would never follow through on the recognition of the two-state solution contained in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, spoke diplomatically, like an official state spokesman, when he said yesterday that the PA would cooperate with any Israeli government, but what cooperation did he mean, exactly, when Israel is still holding on to around half a billion dollars — minus the payments to Israel Electric Corporation — in PA tax remittances? As long as the Palestinian economy remains thoroughly dependent on Israel’s economy, all its imports and exports transit through Israel’s ports; as long as most of the PA’s water and electricity are supplied by Israel and major building projects require Israel’s approval, the PA will be hard-pressed to end that dependency.

Palestinian National Economy Minister Mohammed Mustafa emphasized recently that the PA plans to introduce protections for Palestinian-made products and to join the World Trade Organization, but even if the Paris Protocol — the economic addendum to the Oslo Accords — is amended, it will take the Palestinian economy a few years to wean itself from the Israeli teat. This economic dependence also dictates the need for continued security coordination with Israel, without which Israel might expand the direct occupation into areas A and B (areas of the West Bank under full or partial Palestinian control, according to the Oslo Accords), where the Israel Defense Forces has free reign as it is.

The international front would seem to be the only area in which the Palestinian government can operate to apply pressure on Israel. Abbas has friends in Europe, including in states that have either recognized Palestine or passed resolutions in principle to recognize a future Palestinian state established through negotiations with Israel. In the absence of negotiations, which Netanyahu’s declaration has rendered pointless, there is a growing likelihood that these resolutions in principle will be translated into de facto recognition and the acceptance of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations. That seems the most likely track for the PA to take in the short term, although it means convincing the U.S. administration that the Israeli election results are tantamount to a death certificate for the peace talks.

It is difficult to predict the U.S. position on the issue, in light of Washington’s belated, and decidedly cool, response to the voting results. One possible scenario is for President Barack Obama to launch his own initiative, following the models of presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, on the assumption that even if Jerusalem rejects it, it would lay the foundations for a new American policy. Such an initiative would not necessarily help the Palestinians, since its implementation would depend on Israel and it would be a dead letter after Obama’s term ends in January 2017, but it would help to boost the standing of the United States in the Middle East.

Another option is that Washington will refrain from using its veto when the Palestinians request recognition of their state in the UN Security Council, thus paving the way for full recognition of Palestine. Such a move, however, would be an acute and blunt shift in the U.S. policy of support only for a Palestinian state reached through negotiations with Israel. The president has the authority to take such a decision, but Congress might respond by freezing American aid to the PA or even imposing additional economic sanctions.

Arab support, in particular from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, might be able to compensate for economic damage from the direction of Washington, and it too could be a form of pressure on the administration, but this support would first require full reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Saudi Arabia is working to implement the conciliation agreement between the movements, and even prodded Cairo into appealing a ruling defining Hamas as a terror organization. If the Saudi effort is successful, then Egypt too could change its policy toward Hamas and allow construction materials into the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing in order to carry out the Gaza reconstruction plan.

All these scenarios suggest that Palestine could score an important political coup. Israel would from then on be considered the reluctant, absent partner for peace, a victory that would mainly fuel the boycott movements against Israel and increase moral support for the Palestinians. It would not, however, give them a state.

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