Not many champagne corks will be popping in Israel later this month, if and when the Palestinians bring their bid for independence before the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The overall feeling here is one of anxiety and fear that a vote for a Palestinian state will not bring the two sides any closer to a historic agreement.
Although Benjamin Netanyahu is the third consecutive rightist leader to accept Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem is strongly against the move. Israel’s prime minister says that by favouring the UN and abandoning the bilateral track, the Palestinians are trying to replace the give-and-take of negotiations with unilateral gains.
One of Israel’s main concerns in such negotiations is that the Palestinians recognise Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people – something they have refused to accept since the Partition Plan of 1947.
“For Israelis, the question is not whether to end their control of Palestinians’ lives or not, but how to do it without risking their own lives”, says Eran Shayshon, director of the national security sphere at the Reut Institute, a non-partisan policy group.
Israel’s policy in the last 20 years swung like a pendulum between two poles: the need to reduce its control over the Palestinians on the one hand, and the necessity to take into account its security concerns on the other. “Whenever Israel ceded territories to the Palestinians”, says Shayshon, “its security worsened. Such was the case in Gaza, which is used today as a basis to launch terror attacks and missiles towards Israel.”
While the wording of a possible United Nations resolution and the exact timing are not yet known, commentators predict a large majority in favour of the move. That leaves more questions than answers regarding the “day after”.
A pessimistic option is that nothing will really change on the ground, in which case the disappointment felt by the Palestinians might lead to new waves of violence and to Israel re-taking control of some of the Territories. The Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, could easily collapse.
But there’s also a brighter option, if Israel chooses to use the remaining days ahead to negotiate with the international community on the exact terms of the Palestinian recognition. In such a case, says Shayshon, the new Palestinian entity will have clearer and more binding rights, duties and responsibilities. That in turn could lead to a renewal of negotiations on the final status agreement.
The UN move will in any case herald a new era. As old alliances and regimes are collapsing across the Middle East, a big question mark is now also hanging over the future relationship of Israel and the Palestinians.