On 2 September 2010, the peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis began under the auspices of the US with the objective of reaching an agreement establishing a Palestinian state and guaranteeing Israel’s security. Approximately one month after the beginning of the negotiations, the Palestinian leadership withdrew and refused to return to the negotiation table unless the Jewish state committed to cease settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory. With Abbas absent from the negotiations, Netanyahu continued with the construction of thousands of housing units in the West Bank and Jerusalem’s Old City, without the Middle East Quartet or the US being able to stop this.
In a bid to solve this impasse, the Palestinian leadership decided to go to the UN to request the recognition of the Palestinian state – in accordance with the 1967 borders – as a full UN member-state. As they were aware that the UN General Assembly cannot implement this [full-member state recognition] without UN Security Council approval, the Palestinian leadership decided that it must first take this resolution to the UN Security Council in order to humiliate the US and Israel before international public opinion. The US administration and representatives of the European Union [EU] attempted to dissuade the Palestinians from taking this issue to the UN, something that only increased [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas’s determination to resort to the UN Security Council and acquire Arab League support for his stance.
At the same time, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements – who are in control of the Gaza Strip – declined to meet Abbas’s request to recognize a Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders, insisting that this would mean relinquishing the claim to Palestine’s historic territory, “from the river to the sea”. The stance taken by Hamas and Islamic Jihad corresponds to the position taken by Tehran. Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a press statement issued on the side-lines of the first Islamic Awakening Conference held in Tehran, said “Palestine is not divisible, and it cannot be divided into two parts as some are saying.” He added “Iran’s official stance is that Palestine belongs to all Palestinians…and we do not approve of the breakup of Palestine.” The Iranian Foreign Minister also stressed that “we will never recognize the Zionist regime.”
Abbas then travelled to New York, where he met with US President Barack Obama, who told him that the only way for Palestine to secure a state is via negotiations with Israel, otherwise Washington would not approve Palestine’s membership request to the UN and will even utilize its veto to prevent this, if necessary. French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened to try and help both the Americans and Palestinians save face, proposing that Palestine be granted non-member UN “observer” status provided that Abbas agrees to resume unconditional negotiations with Israel, including him dropping his condition that Israel cease settlement construction.
Abbas refused to bow to all these pressures and went to the UN General Assembly where he derived great satisfaction and pleasure from the reaction of those who filled the UN chamber to listen to his speech, which received 13 rounds of applause and 3 standing ovations. Abbas announced that he had submitted Palestine’s request to join the UN to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. In his address, Abbas lauded Ban Ki-Moon for saying that “the Palestinian State should have been established years ago.” The UN Secretary-General may have been referring to UN Resolution 181 [United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine] which was adopted in 1947 and which granted the Palestinians the right to establish a state, although they failed to take this step for 63 years. During Abbas’s speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank to celebrate their leader’s speech. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [in a meeting with senior representatives of the Palestinian community in the US, shortly before his UN speech] also refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying “they talk to us about the Jewish state, but I respond to them with a final answer: we shall not recognize a Jewish state”. This is despite the fact that UN resolution 181 – adopted in 1947 – granted the Jews the right to establish their own state. [During his UN speech] Abbas referred to Palestine as being holy land for the Muslims and Christians, but did not mention the Jews, saying “the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, [is] the land of divine messages, the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him).”
As soon as Abbas finished his speech, the Middle East Quartet – made up of the UN, the EU, the US, and Russia – urged the Palestinians and Israel to return to negotiations, drawing up a timetable to reach an agreement by the end of the year. The Middle East Quartet said that it wanted full proposals to be submitted within the next three months, so the question that must be asked here is: what position will Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority [PA] take now? Will the Palestinians return to negotiations without imposing pre-conditions? Will Netanyahu agree to cease settlement construction this time?
It is important that the Palestinians recognize, from their past experience, that their window of opportunity is closing, and what they reject today may be impossible for them to even acquire tomorrow. A few weeks before the end of his presidential term, Bill Clinton invited Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barack to Camp David to negotiate. When the two parties failed to reach an agreement, Clinton put forward his own proposal for the two sides to accept. Whilst Ehud Barack indicated that he was prepared to accept this, Arafat rejected the US president’s proposal and returned to Ramallah. Clinton’s proposal, in fact, included more than what Abbas is demanding today; namely a Palestinian state whose capital is Eastern Jerusalem, Palestinian sovereignty of the Temple Mount, the return of 95 percent of the West Bank to be part of the [new] Palestinian state, enlarging the Gaza Strip by incorporating parts of the adjacent Negev desert, and Israel relinquishing some of its settlements on Palestinian territory. The proposal also included the return of the first generations of refugees to Israel, with all Palestinian refugees being granted the right of return, with the rest of the refugees being granted compensation, and nationalization for those opting to remain in other countries.
If Abbas had continued with negotiations last year, the two sides may have reached a point that required international intervention to settle, as was the case with the second round of Camp David negotiation. If this had occurred, the Palestinians could have obtained an international decree this year backing their demands. So, will Abbas return to the negotiating table, or will he waste another year and grant Netanyahu a new opportunity to build thousands more settlements on Palestinian soil?