On Friday, Mahmoud Abbas – backed by more than 80 percent of Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – formally requested full United Nations membership for Palestine.
The logic of turning to the UN is straightforward: the US-sponsored “peace process” – bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians under US auspices – has failed, because a key premise of that process
was that the US government could bring the Israeli government to the table for a serious negotiation that would produce real Israeli compromise necessary for a solution. That premise has turned out to be spectacularly false.
The US hasn't been able to bring the Israeli government to the table for a serious negotiation, not because it would be theoretically impossible to do so, but because “domestic political constraints” – the “Israel lobby” – have prevented the US from exerting effective pressure on the Israeli government to move. Therefore, if the world wants to see resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict anytime soon, it has to wrest control of the issue from Washington. And that's why moving the arena to the United Nations makes perfect sense.
Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy summed it up in The New York Times: “The US cannot lead on an issue that it is so boxed in on by its domestic politics,” Levy said. “And therefore, with the region in such rapid upheaval and the two-state solution dying, as long as the US is paralyzed, others are going to have to step up.”
In his address to the United Nations on Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy directly challenged US control of the Israel-Palestine issue, explicitly stating French support for upgrading the Palestinians' status at the UN to nonmember observer state and implying that US efforts have totally failed.
You might think: who cares? What is France compared to the US? And in a one-on-one confrontation, you might be right. But this is not a one-on-one confrontation. This is the US against Turkey and Egypt and the Arab and Muslim worlds and most of Latin America and Africa and Asia. And so, for France to throw its weight to the other side is potentially a very big deal. It opens up a broader path for the Palestinians – and the Egyptians and the Turks and everyone else – to contest US-Israeli policy in Europe. And there is no question that there are many levers on the US and Israeli governments in Europe that have not been used.
In September 2010, Israel became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Turkey could have vetoed Israel's membership, but it didn't. At the time, if Turkey had decided to take this stand, it might have been isolated. But the world has changed since September 2010; if Israel applied for OECD membership today, the outcome might be different.
In December 2010, a group of 26 former European Union (EU) leaders called for EU sanctions on Israel for settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In response, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, wrote that the EU's response to Israeli settlement expansion would remain unchanged for the time being. What will happen in the future? The pressure to follow up European words with European action will increase.
UN membership for Palestine – even nonmember observer state status – could broaden the path to the prosecution of Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court for the policies of the occupation. It could enable Palestine to join the Law of the Sea Treaty as a means to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza. There are many levers to pursue. But the potential of these levers will depend greatly on governments and public opinion in Europe and elsewhere.
And this is the context – what will Europe and the others do? – in which the diplomatic strategy pursued by the Palestinian leadership makes perfect sense. In recent years, the Palestinian leadership has pursued a “no excuses” policy: not to give the US and Israel any excuse for blocking Palestinian national aspirations, neither by failing to condemn violence, nor by failing to cooperate on issues of security.
This policy has been controversial among Palestinians. Many have basically said: Israel is hitting us – stealing our land, shooting and imprisoning our children – and you're not hitting back; instead, you are cooperating with Israel and the US to prevent others from hitting back.
What's being tested now is this: what is the diplomatic and political fruit of the “no excuses” policy? It certainly hasn't been movement in the Israeli government position; it certainly hasn't been movement in the US government position. But it could be movement in world opinion, it could be movement by European governments, it could be movement by other governments. It could result in greatly increased political, legal and economic pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation.
Venezuela is probably going to support the Palestinians as much as it can no matter what. Probably, US policy will defer to Tel Aviv for the foreseeable future. But for other countries – like France – what they are going to do is much more of a jump ball. What will they do to stand up to the US? Will they support EU sanctions on Israeli settlement expansion? Will they support Palestine's admission to the Law of the Sea Treaty? Will they support the prosecution of Israeli officials for war crimes at the International Criminal Court?
When Branch Rickey recruited Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, they made a bargain. If Robinson would maintain discipline, standing strong against efforts to provoke him into retaliation with racist taunts and assaults, Rickey would stand strong in fighting efforts to keep Robinson from playing. Mahmoud Abbas has held up the Jackie Robinson side of the bargain. The question now is whether the “international community” will hold up the Branch Rickey side of the bargain.