The leadership decision to go to the UN in September creates challenges and risks. For Israel, a UN initiative is deemed a unilateral step that infringes Israeli rights and security. Israel has declared that this act, and the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, are miscalculations that do not further the chances for peace. It further declared that it will freeze the transfer of millions of dollars in customs duties it collects on our behalf at its borders. It also threatened to cancel the application of the signed interim agreements including the Economic Protocol. Already the deprivation of our detainees/prisoners of their rights by canceling family visits has intensified. Settlement construction in East Jerusalem has also been rapidly accelerated and, as if there was a race against time, they are grabbing more land.
The greatest risk for the Palestinians, stems from the fact that going to the UN is declaratory in nature and it will not change ‘facts on the ground’; membership or recognition will not prevent Israel from continuing to maintain control over the land. Despite Netanyahu’s strong rhetoric against the Palestinians going to the UN, Israel’s reaction cannot be forecast. However, it is predictable that Israel will prefer the status of divided Palestinians and will abstain from a call to negotiate with a “State of Palestine”.
For Israel, the risk lies in affronting the European states and being seen as an expensive and constant rejectionist in its policies and practices towards the Palestinians and their proposal. Isolating itself, Israel could well start experiencing diminished international support. Even its closest friend, the United States, is urging Israel to resume negotiations. Should the Israeli extreme right wings continue to control Israeli decision-making in yet anther coalition government, Israel will find itself in greater isolation and the Arab Spring may catch up among Palestinians. It is important that Israel is reminded that we are not going to the UN to delegitimize it, but to legitimize Palestine.
In the United States, the Palestinian decision to go the UN, has provoked a storm of indignation. President Barack Obama warned against steps that are designed to "isolate" Israel at the UN. It is understood that the US would veto Palestinian membership—if one is to remember the American track record of vetoing UN resolutions regarding Palestine. Yet, it must be also remembered that the US is desperate to avoid being put into a position of having to wield its veto. With growing international support for Palestinian statehood, even in Europe, international political commentators are saying that the US is looking increasingly isolated in its support for Israel and a veto would badly damage President Obama's credentials in a rapidly changing Middle East.
The EU, like the US, prefers a negotiated solution and is currently trying to work out a joint position with the Quartet for the resumption of negotiations. Their aim may be to persuade Israel to give the Palestinians a real incentive to set aside their decision to go to the UN and return to negotiations, but so far this has not happened. However, the countries of the EU, are divided. There seems to be three positions among the European countries: those who are for, against, or undecided. To have a consensus among the EU either for or against the Palestinian decision is difficult to predict – as is the outcome.
Hamas-Fatah Agreement, Implications of a Unity Government
As for the the Hamas-Fatah relationship, the reconciliation agreement and going to the UN are part and parcel of the same equation. It is important to remember how and why Hamas gained so much power between 2002 and 2005. Hamas emerged as a movement with a promising socio-economic and ideological program that appealed to a large number of Palestinians, including many youth, and attracted a large following from among the detractors of Fatah and the PLO. For these two groups, Hamas seemed to give new hope to the end of occupation given that the negotiations path that the PLO had espoused had failed and failed again.
The reconciliation came unexpectedly. For Fatah, they decided to take command of their future and move away from a peace “process” controlled by the US and dominated by Israeli concerns, so they needed to have national unity to go the UN. For Hamas, the key issue related to regional changes. Before the Arab Spring, they sat back watching Fatah falter. For them, if a peace process led by the PLO crumbled, they become the quick and viable Palestinian alternative. The reconciliation shows that Hamas is worried. Alarmed about the changes in Syria—its patron, so Hamas was quick to reinforce its ties with Egypt. additionally, support for Hamas in Gaza has been on the decline and it is at odds with the Islamic Brotherhood, so it found a cushion in the reconciliation.
In their reconciliation, Fatah and Hamas agreed on establishing one national government composed of technocrats; holding national parliamentarian and presidential elections; merging and unifying security forces under one command; releasing political prisoners; and the reconstruction of Gaza.
As everyone knows, Israel, the constant rejectionist, condemned the reconciliation. The agreement caught Israel by surprise; it did not anticipate the significant political shift and did not see it coming. The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, told the Palestinian President, Mr. Abbas to either choose between himself or Hamas—as if this were really a Palestinian option. Israel may even regard it as a defeat, especially in light of the decision by the new Egyptian Government to open Rafah, its border with the Gaza Strip, changing a de facto Israeli seizure of 1.5 million human beings. Israel could have responded positively; instead it set the same pre-conditions expressed in regard to the Palestinian decision to go to the UN.
For the United States, who does not look favourably at Hamas, the reconciliation poses challenges. One is reminded of the reaction back in 2006 following the election of Hamas when the US Government immediately boycotted the entire Palestinian Authority. In response, at the time, the US-led Quartet imposed conditions on Hamas. In the reconciliation document, Hamas accepted these conditions. So far, however, the US is keeping a distance and acting with caution—avoiding irreversible positions.
Much could change, and Israel has to make tough decision and give incentives to the Palestinians to resume the negotiations. The initiative to go the United Nations and the national reconciliation carry the Palestinians forward. It is a platform for proactive engagement; Israel can elect to see the glass half full and start its own reconciliation with the Palestinians to end years of occupation.
Dr. Hiba Husseini is Senior Legal Expert managing a major corporate and business law firm in Palestine known as Husseini & Husseini. She has been serving as Legal Advisor to the Palestinian Negotiations Team since 1994 and is the Head of the Legal Committee to the Final Status Negotiations. Dr. Husseini also serves on the boards of various non-profit organization and has written and published worldwide.