Vol. 11, No. 5 June 27, 2011
The momentum for the emergence of Palestinian statehood began two years ago with a serious plan set forth by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In addition, President Barack Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly in 2010 stated that Palestine should become a full member of the United Nations by the fall of 2011.
Unlike the vibrant debate in Israel over the Palestinian plan to seek support for statehood in September in the UN General Assembly, the Arab media is occupied with the wave of changes sweeping Arab countries, leaving little room for discussion of the projected Palestinian plan.
Some commentators believe Abbas’ plan is a dream and that, in order to save face, it is better not to push the plan all the way to the end since this step will not create a Palestinian state on the ground, due to the opposition of Israel and the U.S. Others believe that Mahmoud Abbas is seeking to use the declaration as a tactic to reshuffle the cards and achieve better terms.
The Arab media predicts that a declaration of statehood by the Palestinians would not result in any immediate changes on the ground. Any Palestinian state would lack sovereignty and authority, with borders dictated by certain facts on the ground – the security fence, the settlements, and Israeli control of Jerusalem, as well as continued economic dependence on Israel.
The Oslo II Agreement of 1995 established that neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and Gaza. In order to avoid Israel’s accusation of breaching the Oslo agreements, Palestinians are advised to shake off their commitment to the Oslo agreements, under the pretext that Israel did not live up to all its commitments.
Arab Media Focused on “Arab Spring,” Not Palestinian State
Unlike the vibrant debate in Israel over the Palestinian plan to seek support for statehood in September at the UN General Assembly, the Arab media is busy with the wave of changes sweeping Arab countries, leaving little room for discussion of the projected Palestinian plan, especially in the leading London-based Arabic websites.
The momentum for the emergence of statehood came from two sources. It began two years ago with a serious plan set forth by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In addition, President Barack Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly in 2010 stated that Palestine should become a full member of the United Nations by the fall of 2011.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas stated in April 2011 that he is opposed to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, which he said would constitute “a leap in the air and a miscalculated step.” Abbas added that one of the options before the Palestinians was to appeal to the UN General Assembly to demand Palestinian independence in accordance with Resolution 377 (V), “Uniting for Peace.”1
Yet most of the Arab media believe that the underlying message Abbas is trying to convey is that the Palestinian Authority has other options beside negotiations – which he put on hold. Seeking declarative support for statehood is seen as putting pressure on Israel and the U.S. to return to the negotiating table with better terms for the Palestinians.2 Yet it is not clear if all Arab states will endorse the plan, given the fact that most are preoccupied with internal matters and the future of their own regimes.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has explained that the UN declaration is a means rather than an end. “The Palestinian Authority will defer its attempts to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state at the United Nations if ‘real and serious’ negotiations with Israel begin. The basis of any negotiated agreement must be according to the 1967 borders, very limited exchanges of land and no exchanges of population.” According to Abed Rabbo, the Middle East Quartet should tackle these negotiations in accordance with the timetable previously agreed to, ending in September 2011.3
Some Arab commentators believe the Abbas plan is a dream and that in order to save face it would not be advisable to push the plan all the way to the end, since this step will not create a Palestinian state on the ground, due to the opposition of Israel and the U.S., with some reservations from EU countries as well. Others believe that Abbas is seeking to use the declaration as a tactic to reshuffle the cards and achieve better terms.4
The Arab media maintains that even if the declaration gains a majority of the votes in the UN General Assembly, the resolution cannot give birth to a Palestinian state, as it lacks many essential requirements such as recognized borders and an independent economy.
The recently forged reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is viewed as a positive and essential step toward the declaration act, as it combines two entities into one as a minimum requirement of building a state.5 Hamas, however, has not changed its position towards this option, portraying it as unrealistic, futile, and an escape from its national commitments. According to Hamas spokesman Abu Zahri: “What is important is to secure real international support to end the Israeli occupation, rather than build a state in the air.”6
Support of Arab Countries
The Arab media considers Arab countries’ support essential to gain momentum. PA President Abbas informed Arab leaders of the possibility of seeking U.S. support for the unilateral declaration of a state during the November 2010 Arab summit in Serta, Libya, before the onset of the Arab Spring.
Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Araby, who will soon assume the position of Secretary General of the Arab League, has urged the United States to support the declaration of an independent Palestinian state after the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah brokered by Egypt.7 The statement marks yet another shift in Egypt’s foreign policy. The new call indicates a move away from Egypt’s past stance, which has strongly opposed the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to win backing for a unilateral declaration of statehood.
Amr Moussa, the outgoing Secretary General of the Arab League, has stated that it is essential to declare a unilateral Palestinian statehood as planned in September and there was no need to delay it, due to the continuation of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.8
The Arab Peace Initiative Committee, affiliated with the Arab League, announced on May 28 that it has decided to submit a request to the UN to accept the Palestinian state as a full member, based on the 1967 boundaries and with east Jerusalem its capital. The announcement further stated that all necessary legal procedures will be pursued in order to translate this decision into action.
The Declaration of a Palestinian State Is Redundant
The Arab media is aware of the fact that the Palestinian National Council had declared a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital back in 1988 in Algiers. That resolution was backed by the UN General Assembly and supported by 104 countries.
In 1997 Yasser Arafat threatened to unilaterally declare a state in 1999 at the end of the Oslo II transition period. Confronting this bid, the Israeli government warned that such a move would constitute “a substantive and fundamental violation of the interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.” In such a scenario, Israel would be entitled to take all necessary measures including the application of Israeli law to settlement blocs and security zones in the West Bank. In September 2000, Arafat had a resolution passed in the PLO Central Committee postponing the declaration of a state to an indefinite date.
The idea was floated again by some Palestinian leaders after the start of negotiations between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, but the idea came under criticism from the U.S., which refused to compare the situation in Kosovo to that of the Palestinian territory.
In 2009, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced a program known as the “Palestine document” that called for the establishment of Palestinian state institutions in two years, to be followed by the declaration of a Palestinian state in 2011.
On several occasions, Israel has announced that it rejects the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and considers it a breach of the Oslo agreements. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response carried a warning of the unilateral annexation of Israeli settlements to the State of Israel if the Palestinians moved for a unilateral statehood declaration.
The U.S. and the European Community
The international community, including the United States, seems to favor the idea of a Palestinian state. Yet there is clearly a lack of political will and muscle for forcing Israel to accept the unilateral emergence of Palestine. The U.S. has announced on several occasions its refusal to acknowledge a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and that this would be considered a violation of the Oslo agreement, stressing that negotiations are the best path to resolve problems between Palestinians and Israelis. U.S. congressmen expect America to use its veto against any such resolution submitted to the Security Council.9
On March 17, 1999, the U.S. Congress endorsed HR 380, requesting the U.S. president to refuse any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. In the eyes of the Arab media, all these elements reflect the amount of opposition that the projected declaration would face. On the other hand, according to foreign and Israeli sources cited by Al Jazeera, the Obama administration, with its eye on the 2012 elections, is looking for a Middle East breakthrough that might well take the form of recognition of a Palestinian state.10
The EU supports the U.S. stand of refusing unilateral steps, even if some of the EU foreign ministers view the Palestinian plan as a tool to press the parties to move forward with negotiations, a legitimate act that serves the negotiation process.11
Expected Gains from the Declaration
The Arab media predicts that a declaration of statehood by the Palestinians would not result in any immediate changes on the ground. It would, however, drastically alter international attitudes toward two-state negotiations, with the Palestinians seen as having a much stronger position in such negotiations.
The Arab media notes that any Palestinian state would lack sovereignty and authority, with borders dictated by certain facts on the ground – the security fence, the settlements, and Israeli control of Jerusalem, as well as continued economic dependence on Israel. At best, this will leave the Palestinians with a copy of what the Oslo agreements offered under the name of a state, with a permanent instead of a transitional status.12
Securing a majority of votes at the UN General Assembly, the Palestinians would register a significant victory in the media battle, regardless of the fact that this would not provide even a partial solution to the Palestinian problem.
Even if the Palestinian state would arise only in Area A, according to the Oslo agreement, it would comprise only a small percentage of the West Bank and would not include east Jerusalem or the Jordan Valley. Such a state would be an island surrounded by Israel and without bordering any Arab country.
Al-Jazeera further notes that a unilateral declaration of a state, while Israeli settlements separate Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank and the West Bank remains separated from Gaza, would create cantons lacking geographical unity.13
“If the Palestinian Authority is not properly prepared for the battle ahead, then it’s advisable to regress because it cannot count on Obama and it is already clear that the administration will not let such a resolution pass, neither at the Security Council nor at the General Assembly,” the UAE newspaper Al Khaleej warned.14
The Palestinian Public
A survey reported by Near East Consulting (NEC) on May 4 indicates that 70 percent of Palestinians believe the Palestinian Authority will be able to ask the UN Security Council to support a declaration of a Palestinian state in September 2011.15 Another survey by Al-Najah University in Nablus reported on April 12 a similar level of support by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.16
This is seen as a sign of recognition and appreciation for the work of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, after the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund praised the performance of the PA, saying in separate reports that the PA is well-positioned to run an independent nation. “I believe that our governing institutions have now reached a high state of readiness to assume all the responsibilities that will come with full sovereignty on the entire Palestinian occupied territory,” Fayyad stated.17
According to a survey conducted by The Israel Project, it is clear that Palestinian expectations have been on the rise over recent months, since Palestinians once considered the option of a unilateral state as a joke.18
Recommendations to the Palestinians by the Arab Media19
According to Al-Jazeera, Palestinians are advised to shake off their commitment to the Oslo agreements, under the pretext that Israel did not live up to all its commitments. The 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, also known as Oslo II, clearly established that neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and Gaza.
The act of unilateral declaration is to be supported by daily public protests in the West Bank, while seeking international support and halting security coordination with Israel. Similar to the international campaign to end the Gaza blockade, the PA should build an international front supporting the declaration of a Palestinian state, coupled with international demonstrations and campaigns, in order to secure broad support all over the world for the vote on a Palestinian state.
The Legal Front
Accompanying the declaration of Palestinian statehood, Al-Jazeera envisions challenges to the legitimacy of recognizing Israel. UN General Assembly Resolution 273(3) of May 1949, that accepted Israel as a member of the UN, maintains explicitly that Israel should commit to Resolution 194 that pertains to the Palestinian right of return and Resolution 181, known as the partition resolution, allegedly ignored by Israel. Both resolutions pave the way to challenge Israel’s legitimacy in the General Assembly.
It is further recommended to seek to apply UN Security Council Resolution 1515 of November 2003, which calls for a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state. In addition, it is proposed that Israel be sued at the International Court of Justice in Holland to enforce the ruling issued on July 2004 which claimed that Israel’s security fence is illegal.
Prospects for a Palestinian state through the UN appear to be 50:50 in the eyes of the Arab media, also because there is no coherent domestic front in the Palestinian territories that speaks with one voice, even after the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Add to that the looming questions about what Israel will do and whether the U.S. will veto the proposal or put forward new ideas. No less important is the pattern that Arabs and Palestinians choose to apply as they view the successful outcome of popular uprisings in the region. It would be no surprise if Israel witnesses a repeat of attempts by Palestinians to break its borders from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, or from the sea.
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1. Al-Ayyam (PA), April 10, 2011.
2. Firas Abu Hilal, Aljazeera.net, December 12, 2010.
3. Al-Hayat (UK), April 25, 2011.
4. Al-Khaleej (UAE), April 23, 2011.
5. Doha Institution and Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies
8. http://www.fatehforums.com/showthread.php?p=3801410, May 1, 2011.
9. CNN.net (Arabic), December 17, 2009.
10. Firas Abu Hilal, Aljazeera.net, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/96D9B5A2-9A6A-413E-A7F7-F12E5BFDA06B.htm
11. Al-Doustour (Jordan), December 12, 2009.
12. Firas Abu Hilal, AlJazeera.net. See also Issa Khalaf, Palestine Chronicle,
13. Firas Abu Hilal, AlJazeera.net.
14. Al-Khaleej (UAE), http://www.alnashernews.com/news/news.php?action=view&id=5451
15. WAFA (PA), May 4, 2011, http://english.wafa.ps/index.php?action=detail&id=16042
17. Almasry Alyoum (Egypt), April 11, 2011.
18. David Horowitz, Jerusalem Post, April 8, 2011.
19. Firas Abu Hilal, Aljazeera.net, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/96D9B5A2-9A6A-413E-A7F7-F12E5BFDA06B.htm
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Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz is a senior journalist and commentator in Middle East affairs. Previously, she served as head of the research unit in the information section of the Israel Police, and as head of the Middle East desk of Arabic TV at the Israel Broadcasting Authority.