Palestinians shift gear for statehood

The Palestinian leadership, near despair about attaining a negotiated agreement with Israel on a two-state solution, is increasingly focusing on how to get international bodies and courts to declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The idea, being discussed in both formal and informal forums across the West Bank, is to appeal to the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the signatories of the Geneva Conventions for opposition to Israeli settlements and occupation and ultimately a kind of global assertion of Palestinian statehood that will tie Israel’s hands.

The approach has taken on more weight as the stall in American-brokered peace talks lengthens over the issue of continued settlement building.

“We cannot go on this way,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a former peace negotiator who is a part of the inner ruling circle of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which oversees the Palestinian Authority. “The two-state solution is disappearing. If we cannot stop the settlements through the peace process, we have to go to the Security Council, the Human Rights Council and every international legal body.”

Israeli officials reject the move as unacceptable and a violation of the 1993 Oslo accords that govern Israeli-Palestinian relations. It would also pre-empt any efforts by Israel to keep some settlements and negotiate modified borders. But the Israelis are worried. No government in the world supports their settlement policy, and they fear that a majority of countries, including some in Europe, would back the Palestinians. The Israelis say that what is really going on is a Palestinian effort to secure a state without having to make the difficult decisions on the borders and settlements that negotiations would entail.

They are pressing the Obama administration to take a firmer public stand against the new approach, but Washington has made no move to do so.

“A lot of members of the international community believe that since the Palestinians are the weaker party, if they get more support it will help them in the direct talks with us,” a senior Israeli official said, speaking on standard diplomatic ground rules of anonymity.

“But it works in the opposite direction. This would kill a negotiated settlement.”
Israel and the Palestinians began the direct talks at the start of September. But a freeze on West Bank settlement construction by Israel ended four weeks later, and the
Palestinians said they would not return to the table without an extension.

The US is pleading with the Palestinians not to give up hope. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to an audience of Palestinians in Washington that the US was working hard to restart the process, and that special envoy, George J Mitchell, would return to the region soon.

The Palestinians’ approach is often referred to as a unilateral declaration of statehood. But they declared their state more than 20 years ago and realize that simply restating the declaration will have little effect. Instead, they are pursuing what might better be called a multilateral declaration.

Al-Haq, a Palestinian legal group, repeated its standing argument that for the purposes of the court, Palestine should be considered a state because it engages in international relations and tries its own people in a legal system. Arguing against was Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, who said granting the Palestinians statehood even for the criminal court violated their treaties with Israel. He said in a telephone interview from The Hague that the underlying purpose of the Palestinians was to strengthen their case for statehood recognition.

The Palestinians want the world to declare their state on the territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 war — the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Half a million Israelis now live in those areas, and Israel could find itself, in effect, in daily violation of another member state.

Certain countries sympathetic to the Palestinians, however, might not agree to a declaration of their statehood. For instance, China, Russia and Spain are all facing independence movements within their borders. When Kosovo declared its independence two years ago, many states declined to recognise it because of the potential for setting a precedent of legitimising secession.

If the Palestinians were to go to the United Nations Security Council, they might well face an American veto. Therefore they might start in the General Assembly, where there is no veto and where dozens of countries would be likely to support them.

While that would be less binding, it would provide a kind of symmetry with Israel. It was in the General Assembly in November 1947 that the Zionist movement achieved success through a resolution calling for the division of this land into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Israel has long viewed that vote as the source of its international legitimacy.

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