- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Impact of the Palestinian Bid for Statehood: Views from Center Scholars

| Winter 2011-2012

Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch

Associate, International Security Program; Fellow,Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Brandeis University

Prior to the September Palestinian request for full membership at the United Nations, many warned about a diplomatic train wreck at the international level and violence – even a third intifada – at the local level. Others made the case that a move to the UN would add a sense of urgency that could spur the much needed push for peace talks. In reality not much of the above has materialized. The referral to the Security Council’s admission committee bought time and averted at least for now any potential international showdown. Locally, beyond some rallies and a handful of clashes there was relatively little violence. And judging by how both sides stall their responses to the Quartet’s request to draft their proposal for negotiation there seems to be no new sense of urgency. As it stands, the expected lengthy procedure at the UN is unlikely to help turning the Palestinian bid for statehood into a real or even a symbolic game-changer.

(Commented for this article, October 2011)

R. Nicholas Burns

Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics

“It’s a diplomatic trainwreck for all concerned.  I think every country involved in this in a principal way is going to lose. The Palestinians are going to end up with a relationship with the United States that’s fraying, if not worse.  The Israelis, already isolated by the Arab revolutions, will be further isolated….[The U.S.] did not want to be put in the position of essentially vetoing statehood for the Palestinians.… Most of the world is going to be supportive of this bid.  In practical terms, it does not bring us any closer to a resolution 63 years on from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  I think it will actually bring us further away from that.  It’s a sad day, I think, whether you support the Palestinians or the Israelis, nobody gains from this.”

(Comments from “Palestinian leaders seek full recognition at the United Nations,” Greater Boston with Emily Rooney, September 22, 2011)

Diana Buttu

Fellow, Middle East Initiative

"I think the old negotiations process has completely run its tired course. You've got countries around the world recognizing that you can't just have this process of endless negotiations with the so-called honest broker who's not so honest at all. This has put the final nail in the coffin of the United States being the honest broker.  Now it's being seen for what it actually is, which is Israel's lawyer. The next step depends on what Abbas does.  Is he going to continue to pander to the Americans? Or is he really going to try to build up an international coalition that will deal with this in a very different way to how it's been dealt with in the past?"

(Quoted in "Palestinian statehood goes to UN in key moment for peace process," The Guardian, September 23, 2011)

Shai Feldman

Member, Belfer Center Board of Directors; Director, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis

“I think from [Palestine’s] standpoint, it’s really an act of frustration.  They, in a way, have been seeking a negotiated resolution of this conflict.  That does not mean they did not make mistakes.  I think conditioning the negotiations with this Israeli government on a total construction freeze in the settlements was a mistake.  The Palestinian demands should have been focused on trying to get the Israeli government to agree to resume negotiations from where the negotiations ended at the end of the Bush administration and the end of the Olmert government.  In a way, all three parties—the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans—all got sidetracked….I do not think the real drama is at the UN—I think the real drama is what happens on the street.”

(Comments from “Palestinian leaders seek full recognition at the United Nations,” Greater Boston with Emily Rooney, September 22, 2011)

Chuck Freilich

Senior Fellow, International Security Program

The Palestinian bid for recognition in the UN will provide them with a significant diplomatic achievement, but will not bring them one inch closer to statehood. For that to happen the West Bank and Gaza must reunite and the Palestinians have to agree to return to negotiations. A negotiated two state solution is the only means to a Palestinian state. There are no shortcuts. The UN bid is, unfortunately, another among many Palestinian efforts to avoid the painful concessions a negotiated settlement requires. It is infinitely easier to turn to the UN, where an automatic anti-Israeli majority is assured, than to negotiate.  If the Palestinians doubt Netanyahu’s commitment to negotiations let them put him to the test. Having already rejected two dramatic Israeli peace proposals, in 2000 and 2008, it is time to learn how to say yes to less than 100% of their demands. Make believe UN resolutions are not the answer.

(Commented for this article, October 2011)

Rami G. Khouri

Senior Fellow, Dubai Initiative

“In the end, all we can judge are the words of the various parties, because the past week has been a festival of rhetoric above all else. Nobody has made any substantive moves on the ground, with even the Palestinian request for UN recognition being words on paper that signal intent rather than any tangible accomplishment. The intent that Abbas has signaled, though, is potentially a game-changer, if he sticks to his position and refuses to resume the diplomatic game according to the old rules…If Abbas persists in refusing to resume negotiations while the Israelis continue their settlement building, this would turn out to be the dramatic change that could have far-reaching consequences -- but only if several things were to happen in the coming months and years.”

(Comments from “After the Festival of Rhetoric,” Agence Global, September 28, 2011)

James K. Sebenius

Belfer Center Faculty Affiliate; Professor, Harvard Business School; Director, Harvard Negotiation Project

Although the statehood bid can be seen as an alternative route to independence, it is also a Palestinian negotiating tactic to pressure Israel.  It could add legitimacy to the Palestinian statehood cause and boost prospects for Palestinians to bring actions against Israelis in the International Criminal Court.  And since a U.S. Security Council veto would be deeply unpopular in today’s Arab world, the U.S. urgently seeks to avoid it by pressing Israel to be more forthcoming in direct Palestinian talks.

If these pressures mount, the Palestinian leadership must judge the point of maximum value to “trade” it—by suspending the bid—for real movement in direct talks with Israel.  But there are risks.  The pressures may prove insufficient.  The bid may take on a political life of its own, “tradeable” only at unacceptable domestic costs to the Palestinian leadership.  And if the U.N. legally “upgrades” the Palestinian territories, this new status won’t change anything on the ground—increasing Palestinian despair and the chances of violence.

(Commented for this article, October 2011)

Stephen M. Walt

Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs

“[T]he problem with our ‘unwavering’ support for the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is that it rests on a questionable assumption: that the Palestinians represent the main obstacle to peace today.  The Palestinians’ and the rest of the Arab World's unwillingness to recognize the Jewish state may have been the primary road-block to peace in the past. But since the Arab League's March 2002 Beirut Declaration offering recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and the coming to power in the West Bank of a moderate and effective government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam, Israel now has… real partners for peace. Indeed, had the Palestinians focused their struggle for self-determination in the U.N. 40 years ago, we all would have been thrilled.”

(Comments from “Swim against the tide: Recognize Palestine at the U.N.,” A Realist in an Ideological Age, Foreign Policy, September 14, 2011)

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Farrell, Traci, ed. Impact of the Palestinian Bid for Statehood: Views from Center Scholars.” Edited by Farrell, Traci. Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2011-2012).