Israel, Palestine, and the UN

UN Headquarters photoPalestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has affirmed the intent of the Palestinian Authority to go to the UN next month with its demand for statehood. A U.S. State Department spokesperson called it “a bad idea.” I think it could be a good idea, if handled well, and I find amusing the idea voiced by various U.S. and Israeli officials that going to the UN is a “unilateral” act. Say what you want about taking your problems to the UN, but it’s not unilateral!

The General Assembly is expected to start its parade of world leaders speaking in turn on Sept. 20 and Palestine will likely be on the agenda for those speeches. Israeli leader Benyamin Netanyahu isn’t sure if he’ll attend — he might send the ultra-ring-wing foreign minister instead. Apparently he’s been reading “how to NOT make friends and influence people.”

Speaking of bad ideas, Israel just approved construction of several hundred more houses in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The Quartet of outside powers — the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations — said they were “greatly concerned” about the new housing plans. And well they might be. Not only is new settlement in the occupied territories a key blockage for resuming peace talks, but Ariel is the key settlement in that blockage.

Back in February, the New York Times magazine ran a long description of peace talks in 2007 and 2008, recently “outed” by al Jazeera in detail, between Abbas and then-prime minister of Israel Ehud Olmert. They were extremely close to a deal on almost all points when the talks broke off. The government of the United States changed and so did that in Israel, and the deal has been on ice, although Israeli President Shimon Peres has held talks recently with Abbas along the same lines. (The publication of details of the negotiations showed, to the detriment of Abbas’s standing among Palestinians, that he had given the Israelis almost everything they wanted.)

The deal was based on pre-1967 borders. Land swaps were to put most of the settlers back within Israel (most settlements are just over the old border), with land swaps giving Palestine an equivalent territory elsewhere. Some refugees would return to within Israel but most would get compensation and settle either in Palestine or elsewhere. Jerusalem would be a “holy basin” with a special status ensuring access to all religions, rather as the UN had envisioned in 1947 in its original partition plan. Here is the NY Times’s excellent map:

Map from NY TimesThese historic points of conflict — borders, refugees, Jerusalem — were not the sticking point. Rather, the biggest problem was the Ariel settlement. It is large (18,000 and set to grow), filled with passionate right-wing settlers, and located deep in the West Bank, wrecking the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.

So responding the Palestinian’s UN gambit with a decision to expand Ariel is sending a message. But really, guys, that’s the best you have? Even with tent cities of protesters popping up across Israel as hundreds of thousands of young people demand a more just, equitable society? The answer is more housing in Ariel?

So, here’s what I think would be a better approach for the United States and the Quartet — better than standing on the sidelines saying the Palestinians have a “bad idea” and we are “greatly concerned” about Israeli actions. I say take it to the UN! That’s what it’s there for. The UN is where it all started in 1947. The UN Security Council resolutions after the 1967 and 1973 wars are the blueprint for everything since.

But don’t bother with the powerless General Assembly (recently compared by U.S. ambassador Susan Rice to the Star Wars bar scene). Use the Security Council. It has never passed a resolution laying out the vision of a two-state solution. (The 1947 partition resolution was from the General Assembly.) Now is the time to do so. Not jump to the final details, but give the overall framework of a solution — the points about borders, refugees, Jerusalem just discussed. UN Security Council resolutions are the blueprints for how great powers plan to address international conflicts. We need one.

A new resolution would bypass the conflicts about General Assembly resolutions, statehood bid, and settlement-building. It would get the USA off the hook in terms of vetoing Palestinian statehood. It would send Israel a clear directive of how the endgame is going to shape up. (You can build houses in Ariel, but Palestinians are going to end up living in them.)  It would reinvigorate the two-state solution and deflate extremists on both sides who want it all for their side.

The United States created the UN, is its biggest single donor, and physically hosts it in New York. The UN is a tremendous tool for accomplishing American foreign policy goals. So use it!

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