In travel to the Middle East in June and to London last week I found a wide consensus among officials and analysts that the planned Palestinian statehood initiative at the United Nations is a very bad idea. That is not surprising: in pursuing this bid for Security Council or General Assembly recognition of Palestinian statehood, the PLO will have walked away from the negotiating table, embittered relations with Washington, and risked violence. The melodrama in New York will turn attention away from both the need for serious negotiations and the hard work of building state institutions on the ground in the West Bank. It is not the right approach, and most policymakers know it, so it time for leaders in the UK and Europe to speak up and say so.
There is a broad consensus in Israel that a Palestinian state is a sensible objective, but its creation must be the result of negotiation, not political theatre in New York. It is ironic that Israel was warned by Prime Minister Cameron to return to the negotiating table, else it would risk a UK vote in favour of Palestinian statehood, for it is the Palestinians who have turned their back on negotiations with this move – and indeed with their refusal for two years to sit down and bargain. Many excuses are offered, chief among them that construction continues in some settlements. But that was never a precondition to negotiations before Camp David, Taba, or Annapolis. Each side should state its objectives at the table, not impose preconditions for the commencement of talks.
While the US government appears to be working hard to pressure the PLO away from its UN gambit and has said it would veto the move in the Security Council, the United Kingdom has still to declare its position. This seems to me a mistake, given the influence that a firm British and EU position would have. First, it might yet persuade the Palestinian leadership to think again. Polls have shown that many Palestinians think the UN move ill-advised, and some Arab leaders agree. President Abbas could find a way to back off if he got very clear signals from Europe – signals not yet sent.
Second, what will happen to the UK and European influence after this vote? Israelis are bound to see the failure to adopt a clear position, and to demand that the Palestinian leadership stick with negotiations, as a betrayal of longstanding principles that date back to the Oslo Accords. A UN declaration of Palestinian statehood, for example, by according Palestine “non-member observer state” status, begs several key questions. Who would run such a state? The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is busy trying to patch up relations with Hamas in Gaza, in an effort to display unity. Far from being welcomed, this move should set alarm bells ringing. Hamas is, after all, a proscribed terrorist entity whose stated objective is the annihilation of Israel. And what would be left of the legal status of the Palestinian Authority and PLO after such a move? The Palestinians’ own legal advisor, at Oxford, has raised these very questions. And who will keep the peace if frustrated Palestinians react to the UN move by going to the streets when they find that it was, after all, mere symbolism, and has not improved their lives or brought peace closer?
The only viable path to peace is through negotiation – and European powers, including the UK and France, should reassert this simple truth. They should join America in refusing to support this provocative and potentially dangerous piece of political theatre.