Arab Spring, Awful Autumn


The Mideast, already roiling with violence and unrest, is about to enter an even darker, more uncertain phase as the Palestinian Authority seeks full membership in the United Nations next week. The prospects are deeply worrying, if not terrifying.

Like a roller coaster out of control, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has opted for high-stakes uncertainty, saying he is fed up with the lack of progress in negotiations with Israel, though it was he who was instrumental in thwarting the talks. Such is the logic of the Palestinian leadership in seeking to achieve statehood without negotiating with Israel, a move opposed by most Palestinians but sure to find approval in the UN General Assembly.

Equally disturbing is the logic of those who cast Israel as the chief culprit for the failure of peace efforts in the 18 years since the Oslo Accords were signed.

During that time Israel has offered statehood and generous concessions to the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 and again in 2008, and withdrawn completely from Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005). The response has been renewed intifada and years of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, war from Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the widespread belief in the Arab world that Israel’s unilateral withdrawals were a sign of weakness, not conciliation.

No one is blameless here. Jerusalem has missed opportunities, and the Obama administration’s decision two and a half years ago to restart peace talks by calling for a halt on Israeli settlements — not a game-changer for the Palestinians until then — was a serious blunder that made matters worse, hardening the PA’s position.

The sad irony is that despite the diplomatic standoff, there have been positive signs in Israeli-PA cooperation in the last year, most notably in terms of West Bank security, with PA forces, trained by the U.S. and in coordination with Israel, restoring order to cities like Ramallah and bringing new respect for the PA police. In addition, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, widely recognized for his efforts to confront corruption and create stability, has made great strides in building a sustainable infrastructure for a future state.

It was Fayyad who acknowledged earlier this summer that a UN vote on statehood would not change the reality for Palestinians. “Unless Israel is part of that consensus, it won’t,” he said, “because to me, it is about ending Israel’s occupation.”

Even now it is unclear what prompted Abbas to insist on the UN statehood venture, which may well turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Perhaps it was his dream to achieve statehood as his last political act before leaving the public scene. But his irresponsible act has been little criticized while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu bears the brunt of the blame.

It is still not known what the precise results of the UN effort will be, but none of the prospects are positive. Unless an increasingly unlikely last-minute effort to avoid a UN showdown is successful, the outcome is sure to further deteriorate relations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between the U.S. and the Palestinians. It will also further frustrate the hopes of most Palestinians, only 13 percent of whom believe conditions will improve as a result of the UN action, according to survey by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

Washington’s last-ditch diplomacy has been rebuffed by Abbas as “too late.” Officials of the European Union are in talks with the PA regarding a compromise that would soften the resolution wording and would call for bilateral talks.

At this late date it appears that the PA has not decided on which of two paths to take at the UN. Abbas’ first choice is to press the Security Council for full membership, which would require a unanimous vote among the five permanent members (the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia). But the U.S. has made it clear it would veto such a vote. The PA may go through the motions anyway to force the U.S. rejection.

The other route is for the PA to take its case to the friendly confines of the General Assembly, where the required two-thirds majority among the 193 member states is assured for Palestine to garner a resolution supporting statehood or receive enhanced status as a “nonmember state,” like the Vatican.

Abbas has made clear that he sees such status as a stepping stone to using the UN to further delegitimize Israel. He wrote in a New York Times op-ed several months ago that UN admission would “pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”

Israel is very worried about that possibility. Most pressing, though, Jerusalem is concerned that the Palestinian masses, stirred up by Arab Spring demonstrations in other countries and frustrated that the UN vote does not produce immediate results, will turn violent. From there the downward spiral is hard to measure and frightening to contemplate.

Will Israel fire on protesters? Will Jerusalem and Washington make good on threats to cut off vital aid to the PA, plunging it into financial chaos and perhaps leading to its demise?

As usual, Israel is caught in an awful bind. It does not want to see the PA succeed at the UN, eliminating the concept of a negotiated settlement. But it also doesn’t want to see the collapse of the PA, bringing on a Hamas takeover of the West Bank and years of violent confrontation with no framework for resolution.

Compromise still remains an option, like a softened UN resolution in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But the climate is not ripe these days for cooperation with Israel, which faces deteriorating relations with Egypt and Turkey, uncertainty about Syria, a one-day Durban III UN conference next week aimed at further marginalizing the Jewish state, and an ever-threatening Iran advancing its quest for nuclear arms.

With Israel’s efforts unsuccessful in seeking to defuse the hatred of its enemies — the result of decades of relentless demonization of Jews and Zionists in the Arab world — it is important to recognize the critical support of Washington and the need for the Jewish community and its friends to speak up and take action when others remain silent.

The world has but one Jewish state; its future is not guaranteed. Times like this demand that those who profess love and support for Israel turn their feelings into action, from buying Israeli products to speaking to colleagues about the conflict, from planning a trip to Israel to supporting a pro-Israel organization.

As Hillel observed centuries ago, if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?

Am Yisrael chai.