In late July, Israel’s president Shimon Peres held a series of secret meetings with the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the two pored over maps of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, discussing potential land swaps and compensation schemes that would end the impasse and allow the formation of an independent Palestinian state. After four meetings, the talks were scuttled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The clandestine negotiations were, apparently, a last-ditch attempt at staving off a potential crisis at the United Nations in September, when Palestinian officials plan to seek formal recognition of their state from the international community. That the talks were held in secret is a sign of just how much enmity and distrust has built up between the two sides. Officials seem to have concluded that only talks held out of public view had a chance of succeeding. And even then, they did not.
Now, with Israeli security forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza trading mortar rounds and missiles, and a tenuous ceasefire quickly collapsing after renewed attacks on both sides, the stakes for the U.N. vote have grown even higher. The turmoil engulfing the Middle East has already set Israelis on edge, and stoked fears that a democratic Egypt, or a Syria mired in civil war, could destabilize the region. Mass demonstrations and international recognition of a Palestinian state might only add a match to the tinderbox.
Even Arab leaders who support the Palestinians’ request for statehood now seem to be urging caution. The new secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, suggested that the Palestinian bid could be ill-timed given the recent spate of violence. “The unilateral appeal to the U.N. Security Council and U.N. General Assembly could be a very dangerous move for the Palestinians during this period,” Elaraby said. “I propose that Abbas reconsider the handling of the matter.”
In some sense, however, it may be too late. Abbas has already formally set a date for the presentation of the Palestinians’ statehood bid at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 20, and without major symbolic concessions from the Israelis, a withdrawal now would likely be an embarrassment for an already diminished Palestinian Authority. The moderate Fatah faction has suffered from a crippling lack of credibility ever since it was revealed, earlier this year, that they had offered to give away almost all of East Jerusalem, and many of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in exchange for peace.
So the two sides careen toward the chasm. As the Palestinians prepare their statehood bid, Israel is moving forward with the construction of even more settlements in the West Bank, which the international community considers illegal. Plans for those settlements, roughly 280 housing units, were announced just weeks after Israel authorized the construction of 900 housing units in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their prospective state. The goal of those settlements, the Palestinians say, is to alter the demographics on the ground enough to make an independent Palestinian state impossible.
With the Palestinians bypassing peace talks and the Israelis continuing settlement construction, only a dramatic and last-minute effort by the United States can head off the looming crisis, according to veteran observers of the peace process. Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, for example, has suggested that the U.S. broaden the U.N. initiative into a Security Council resolution setting out key parameters in the peace talks for both sides. “Absent such an effort, the Palestinians will have a hard time backing off their U.N. strategy, even if they want to,” Friedman wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
Instead, the U.S. is threatening sanctions and other punitive measures. The U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Daniel Rubinstein, told Erekat this week that the U.S. would not only veto the Palestinian statehood resolution in the Security Council but halt all financial aid to the Palestinian territories. Financial aid from the West has been instrumental in helping the Palestinians build up civil institutions, such as a banking system, secure the West Bank and attract private investment from around the world. In fact, that nation-building program, spearheaded by the Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, has helped prepare the Palestinians for their statehood bid.
Of course, the general parameters of a peace agreement have been known for quite some time — in fact, they’re likely the parameters by which Peres and Erekat were negotiating in their secret meetings: A Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, with land swaps allowing Jewish enclaves to remain Jewish and Arab neighborhoods to join a Palestinian state. As Peres put it in July, talks along these lines would have offered the chance to avert a crisis when the U.N. convenes next month. “Such a political move will allow for a breakthrough,” he said, “and will transform September into a month of hope.”