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As Palestinians Push for Statehood, Is Peace Process Dead?

September 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Palestinians' push for statehood, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state next week. Jeffrey Brown discusses what's at stake in the U.N. battle with Princeton University's Daniel Kurtzer and the International Crisis Group's Roberty Malley.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at the stakes and risks in all this now with Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt. He’s now a professor at Princeton. And Robert Malley, former National Security Council staff member in the Clinton administration, he’s now with the International Crisis Group.

Daniel Kurtzer, I will start with you.

Today, we saw this press continuing by the U.S. and other Western officials to try to head off a vote. Explain what has them so concerned. What’s going on?

DANIEL KURTZER, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt: Well, I think there are two concerns that the administration is trying to head off, number one, that the move by the Palestinians to the U.N. could in some ways foreclose an early opportunity to return to negotiations.

As your report indicated, we haven’t had negotiations for quite some time. But there’s a concern that this will simply drive the parties further apart as they take unilateral steps against each other.

The second, more serious concern has to do with the possibility that the Palestinians will use their new U.N. status to gain standing in international legal institutions such as the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice and to transform what has been a diplomatic process into a legal process of holding settlements illegal, settlers, Israeli soldiers and so forth coming under the jurisdiction of these international institutions.

And this could lead to some very dire consequences down the road.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rob Malley, what’s your take? What are people afraid of, the impact of a vote?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: I think everything that Ambassador Kurtzer said is right.

The other concern the administration has is, they know, if this is going to go the Security Council, they will veto it, for all the reasons one could think of, and added to that the political reasons. President Obama doesn’t and the administration doesn’t want to appear to be in any way opposed to Israel at a time when elections are about to occur in this country, close elections.  

But they also know that if they veto that resolution at a time of great uncertainty and flux and instability in the Middle East, it could really ignite greater hostility toward the United States at a time when it’s the last thing that the United States wants to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tying to what we just saw with Margaret in Egypt, right?

ROBERT MALLEY: Exactly. Exactly. So, we have to balance those two.

So the hope the administration has is that this all just goes away and that they can convince the Palestinians to abandon their quest.

JEFFREY BROWN: I will start with you, Robert. Back up a bit to what caused this push. What led to this push by the Palestinians to come to the U.N.?

ROBERT MALLEY: In some ways, it’s a pretty paradoxical situation. You have President Abbas, the Palestinian president, who has never believed in going to the U.N. for his entire life. He’s believed in negotiations, he’s believed in reaching out to the U.S. and to Israel, and yet he’s now presiding over the most determined effort by the Palestinians to take this to that international institution.

What it reflects, what it’s systematic of is the fact that the Palestinians have simply lost faith in every other avenue. They don’t believe in negotiations anymore. They don’t believe in what the U.S. can do. They certainly don’t believe in Israeli goodwill.

And so President Abbas, almost against his better judgment, has been forced into the position of saying, if nothing — if I have nothing else, I need to show my people I’m trying to do something. I’m going to take it to the U.N.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that sound right to you, Ambassador Kurtzer? And bring Israel into this. We heard from Mr. Lieberman in our clip. What is going on there as they watch what’s going on?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, I think it’s exactly right that Palestinian frustration has reached a kind of boiling point.

You know, the last serious effort by the administration to move the peace process forward, which was President Obama’s May 19 speech, was greeted by absolute rejection by the state of Israel and a kind of modified rejection by the Palestinians.

So the peace process is really dead in the water. And the Palestinians, I think, don’t see much of an alternative than to try to gain some diplomatic advantage from it. The problem, of course, on the Israeli side is that there will be voices like that of Avigdor Lieberman who will call for retaliation, either withholding necessary funds that are transferred every month by Israel, collected from customs and duty, such as increased settlements building, such as the possibility even of unilaterally annexing some of the territories, some of the West Bank.

Any one of these will escalate this crisis into very serious waters. And I think that’s of great concern to the administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, Rob Malley, this comes, again, as you brought up, in the context of the larger upheaval in the Middle East, Israel feeling more isolated by all of this.

ROBERT MALLEY: I mean, look at what’s happening, just what’s happened and what’s about to happen. You have had the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. You have had Turkey, which is now using language against Israel which is quite extraordinary as a reaction to the flotilla event that occurred when Israel attacked a ship that was trying to enter Gaza.

And you now have the U.N. vote with the Palestinians which is going to have, no matter what, very broad support from most countries in the world. So for many Israelis, and in particular those in the government, they view this and they say, we’re being surrounded, we’re under siege.

This is not a time when they feel particularly confident. And they just don’t know where the Arab spring is headed because it may head in all kinds of different directions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about risks for the Palestinians? You mentioned President Abbas has not pushed this before. We have already had some members of the U.S. Congress say, if this goes forward, we’re getting rid of funding for the Palestinian Authority.

ROBERT MALLEY: Right. Well, I think Ambassador Kurtzer also mentioned what Israel might do, which is much more costly to the Palestinians, because two-thirds of their budget is covered by the transfer of the tax revenues that are collected by Israel.

So they could lose — they could create hostility from the administration. They could lose whatever they get from Israel. A lot of things are at stake. But this is really an era, in a way, where everyone is looking at domestic politics. I said earlier that the administration is concerned about not alienating constituents here that are supportive of Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: That goes back to our first segment tonight, right, of that New York…

ROBERT MALLEY: … New York, which I think is a wakeup call, or at least another alarm bell.

In Israel, as we just heard, there’s some on the right in particular who are saying, how can you not respond to a — to this Palestinian gesture, and they’re putting — this Palestinian step — and they’re pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu to react quite aggressively.

And President Abbas, of course, is also concerned that if he comes back and he sort of reneges on his commitment to go to U.N., he will face a torrent of domestic criticism.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Ambassador Kurtzer, what is the state of play then? Given all these pressures, are the Palestinians hearing the push from all sides? Are they responding to it? What do you see going on?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, there are two pathways that are still available, although it’s very late. And they both involve diplomacy.

One is for the United States and the international quartet, Russia, the U.N. and the European Union, to articulate a peace proposal that both sides can adopt and that the Palestinians have said would give them confidence to set aside their U.N. gambit. This is very unlikely, but it’s still possible in the next week or so.

The other possibility is for the United States to join efforts led now by some Europeans to try to craft a U.N. resolution that doesn’t set us back very far, in other words, which provides the Palestinians with some diplomatic opening, but that also may provide Israel with some gains and some benefits and perhaps preserves the possibility for future negotiations.

So diplomacy is not dead, but it’s very late for all of us to have woken up. And the administration’s really got to kick this into a much higher gear over the next week, before President Abbas delivers his speech to the U.N. on the 23rd.

JEFFREY BROWN: Briefly, Rob Malley, do you see some way forward…

ROBERT MALLEY: I think it’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: … before we hit next week, right?

ROBERT MALLEY: I think it’s more or less what we just heard.

I think also — two things. Number one, I think the Palestinians are going to need to get some upgrade of statehood status, because without that, President Abbas looks like he surrenders — surrendered. And, second of all, I think — and this is where diplomacy comes in — both Israelis and Palestinians have to be told to cool it off after the vote.

The Palestinians shouldn’t rush to the International Criminal Court, and the Israelis shouldn’t either cut off funding, expand settlements. We just issued a report, and we called it “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And the message is, everyone needs to lower their tempers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rob Malley and Daniel Kurtzer, thank you both very much.