President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all pandered to their respective domestic political bases at the United Nations General Assembly meeting last week. Despite the drama, nothing that was discussed in the halls of this great monument to international cooperation has changed, no party changed its bottom-line positions and none of what happened brought us any closer to peace or improved the situation on the ground.
Abbas gave a rousing speech that more than adequately articulated the Palestinian position and case for statehood, but failed to offer any special or specific outreach to the Israeli people. Netanyahu gave his usual defiant speech, including a denunciation of the United Nations as a "house of lies" which was aimed mainly at securing the ongoing support of the Israeli right and while President Obama did not pander specifically to his base, he did fail to offer any empathy to the Palestinians—essentially defending himself from scurrilous attacks from the Republican right regarding his Israeli policies.
Consequently, all three leaders emerged from the UN meetings politically strengthened but having weakened the prospects for peace in this violent part of the world. Prime Minister Netanyahu went to great lengths to marshal Israel's numerous international assets to stop the Palestinian bid for statehood dead in its tracks. The application for statehood will no doubt be relegated to the 15-member Membership Committee, which meets and votes in secret and which requires a unanimous vote to send the application to the Security Council for a final vote. Precedent demonstrates that this process can take years to run its course and even if Palestinians decide to push for a vote in the Security Council sooner, and can then secure a nine-vote majority, the Obama administrations has already committed itself to vetoing their application for membership.
Caught between the rock of Israeli occupation and the hard place of what is so far been failed diplomacy, the Palestinian leadership sought a redress of sorts at the United Nations, knowing full well that they were risking a damaging collision with the United States over this potential veto.
While the ultimate success of such a move will depend a great deal on improvements in Palestine internally and also in Israel political realities, and especially on the outcome of the US presidential elections, it is imperative that the prospects for a genuine two-state solution are preserved and possibly even strengthened. To finally achieve peace, Israelis and Palestinians must move beyond the widely held view that cast each of them as simply enemies of on another. This has to happen so that the complexity and interdependence of their relationship is ultimately appreciated, not only now but into the future.
This must mean, preserving and strengthening the gains made on the ground in the occupied West Bank by the Palestinian institution-building program led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Many members of the U.S. Congress from both parties and Republican presidential candidates have been irresponsibly calling for a cut in US funding to the Palestinian Authority and any international organizations that accord upgraded status to the Palestinians.
Nothing could be more shortsighted than threats by grandstanding members of Congress to cut US aid to the Palestinian Authority, the single biggest source of external funding for the Palestinians, which would then only serve to undermine the legitimacy of the moderate, secular, nationalist leadership in Ramallah and ultimately threaten the viability of both negotiations and the negotiators themselves.
It would also jeopardize the important cooperation between Israel and Palestine security forces that has greatly reduced violence and restored law and order in some key areas of the West Bank. It could undermine, perhaps forever, the credibility not just of individual political leaders but the whole Palestinian national strategy that seeks the establishment of an independent state living alongside Israel in peace, security and mutual respect. It would in addition, play directly into the hands of rejectionists forces such as Hamas and the extreme Israeli settler movement that cling to a zero-sum mentality that seeks the total victory of one party at the absolute expense of the other.
It is evident that the status quo is untenable, the conflict has no military solution, and a negotiated agreement is the only alternative to continued conflict. The Israeli occupation must end and, in turn, Israel must become an accepted member of the community of nations in the Middle East. No Israeli, we hope, wants to occupy another people and no Palestinian, we believe, wants to be occupied. The few benefits the Israelis accrue from occupation (e.g., arable land, settlements, water resources) can be better secured through long-term arrangements with friendly neighboring countries, including a State of Palestine. Real "strategic depth" doesn't come from belligerent occupation. It comes from an end of conflict.
Regardless of what transpires at the UN with respect to Palestine's membership, it must become the impetus towards increased commitment on the part of the international community to finally fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and the yearning of Israelis for peace and security. The parties cannot accomplish this irrespective of one another.
Now is the time for leaders on all sides to rise above politics and use their strengthened positions to begin the difficult, and probably prolonged, process for creating a more positive political environment that can eventually produce successful negotiations. Above all, the gains that have been secured on the ground through the Palestinian institution-building program and Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation -- which are real and not theoretical -- must not be squandered, but protected and enhanced.