Though legal experts have questioned the significance of the United Nations’ General Assembly vote that granted Palestine the status of a nonmember state (upgraded from “entity”), its symbolism continues to reverberate loudly through the region. Of 193 member states, 138 backed the motion of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 29 November, and many view this as an interim step toward full membership. The initiative opens up opportunities for negotiations but comes at a particularly sensitive time in the region and carries its own significant risks of igniting violence.
For the Palestinian president, the UN bid was, among other things, a way of boosting his popularity through a symbolic victory. In recent months, Abbas suffered several diplomatic setbacks, including the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’s parent organization) in Egypt and the visit of the Qatari emir to Gaza in October. Turkey’s prime minister is expected to follow suit in a few days granting additional legitimacy to Hamas.
Abbas has even hinted in recent interviews that he would feel sufficiently empowered by the UN achievement to start a new round of negotiations with Israel (previously, he had used his domestic weakness in order to delay and to set preconditions). Judging by the victory celebrations in Ramallah and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, he seems to have attained the desired image boost. But for now, there has been little mention of negotiations—and there may not be until the outcome of the Israeli elections next month.
Surprisingly, the Hamas-Israel conflict of the past few weeks and the truce breathed new life into the intra-Palestinian reconciliation process, with joint rallies taking place and other symbolic gestures such as amnesty for persecuted activists planned both in Gaza and in the West Bank. But whether the Palestinian split (which included a brief civil war in 2007 when Hamas captured Gaza by force) can be put behind quickly, remains to be seen. The eight-day Israeli operation in Gaza triggered nothing less than a miraculous transformation of the Palestinian political scene. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal—who was expected to retire last month (reportedly under pressure from Gaza hardliners)—was suddenly propelled back center -stage. Meshal and Abbas signed a reconciliation agreement in Qatar last year, but the initiative was torpedoed by the Gaza faction of Hamas. Now with his Gazan rivals weakened, Meshal is using the opportunity to resurrect the accord. Not only that, but he embraced Abbas’s UN initiative and even hinted that he was considering a shift to non-violent resistance. As if to back Meshal’s words, Suleiman al-Daya, a prominent Gazan Muslim cleric who is reportedly respected even by religious extremists in Gaza, declared it a sin to break the ceasefire. For its part, Israel provided Hamas and Meshal with tangible achievements—concessions, such as the easing of border restrictions—which they would lose if the truce collapses.
There are several ironies in these striking transformations. Once considered an extremist himself, Meshal was targeted by a botched assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997—an operation ordered by none other than the current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term. Now, however, Netanyahu seems to have effectively saved Meshal’s political career, not least by assassinating several of his internal rivals. Thanks to the ceasefire he helped broker in Egypt, Meshal is expected to make his first trip to Gaza very soon—he is from the West Bank originally and has been in exile since 1967—and reassert his authority there.
Though it is hard to describe Meshal as a moderate by Western standards—and with Hamas vowing to re-arm, expressing public gratitude for Iran’s military help—his support for the UN initiative nevertheless places him on the moderate side of hardliners who refuse to hear about a state in the 1967 borders and insist on destroying Israel altogether. Meshal himself refuses to recognize Israel explicitly, but has suggested in interviews that once a Palestinian state is formed, it would be able to make such a decision.
It is too early to say how long the newly minted power balance inside Hamas and in Gaza will last, in part because of the interference of external factors. The ceasefire and the prominence of relatively moderate voices inside Hamas come as blows to Iranian interests in the region. As a result, Tehran may seek to torpedo these developments—perhaps through some of the smaller and more radical organizations it funds in Gaza. Egypt, whose Muslim Brotherhood president is an ally of Hamas, took the lead in brokering the ceasefire and has a strong interest in seeing it work. Meanwhile, the political crisis which has erupted in Egypt could easily divert that country's attention away from Gaza and contribute to collapse of the truce.
Israel, meanwhile, is suspicious of the reconciliation effort and hostile toward the Palestinian bid at the UN. For the Israelis, the 1967 borders mentioned in Abbas’s proposal are not an attractive proposition, since they don’t include East Jerusalem or any of the large settlements built since in the West Bank—which, they have argued, serve an important defensive purpose. The formula on which the most recent rounds of peace negotiations were based (also endorsed by U.S. President Barack Obama) was “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces reelection in January 2013, reacted to the UN vote by “rejecting” it—deducting unpaid electricity bills from the tax money his government collects on behalf of the Abbas administration, and authorizing new settlement construction (including a plan to build up a particularly sensitive area which bisects almost the entire West Bank). Though the latter retaliatory step would constitute a serious blow to the viability of the Palestinian state, Israeli experts say implementation is unlikely (Netanyahu himself said in interviews that he had only authorized “planning” the settlement, not actually building it). Currently it appears to be more of a threat designed for domestic consumption than a serious initiative.
As long as the Palestinians limit themselves to symbolic steps, the Israeli government is likely to do the same. Despite some speculation that the UN vote could result in a de facto legal recognition of Palestine as a state, some experts generally don’t consider this to be the case; Mary Ellen O'Connell, a law and international dispute resolution professor at the University of Notre Dame, argues that "the bottom line is that full UN membership is the only way for an entity to remove all doubt about status as a a sovereign state."
Right now, though, the three protagonists on the Israeli-Palestinian political scene—Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas—are all in flux. Given that the region itself is highly unstable, it is very difficult to forecast how the balance among them will evolve. The recent developments at the UN open up a flurry of new possibilities, but they also carry significant dangers. History of the conflict has shown that the specter of violence is never too far from the Israelis and Palestinians—especially when good opportunities are missed.
Victor Kotsev is an independent journalist and political analyst focusing on the Middle East.