Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ determined push for UN recognition of a Palestinian state is burdened with great risk. In practice, UN validation will do nothing to improve the lot of his people. Dialogue with their Israeli neighbours has resulted in significant Palestinian economic and infrastructural development, yet Abbas is ditching the path of negotiations in favour of misguided political posturing. In doing so, he is choosing stagnation for Palestinians and the prospects of peace – He may even be laying the foundations for renewed violence.
Abbas maintains that he has resorted to unilateral action only as a result of Israeli foot-dragging, yet the benefits of talks are abundantly clear. They paved the way for the removal of dozens of Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank over the last two years, while the diplomatic process compelled Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to introduce a moratorium on construction in the area last year. The West Bank, administered jointly by Palestinian and Israeli authorities, boasts a healthy 8 per cent economic growth. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has publicly backed a Palestinian state for two years and recently urged peace talks, telling Arabic television that “everything is on the table”. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to see what Abbas will achieve at the UN beyond symbolism. Even Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayad has warned that the UN vote is illusory and will only bring disappointment.
The greatest fear is that deep Palestinian frustration will evolve into anger and a new round of deadly violence. For the past few months, Israeli security forces have been preparing for the prospect of significant fighting in the wake of September’s UN vote. Israel well understands the possible consequences of dashed Palestinian expectations – The Second Intifada erupted in September 2000 at the cost of thousands of lives on both sides following collapsed peace talks at Camp David. Ominously, the general secretary of the Arab League recently warned Abbas of the inherent “danger” of the UN vote, urging reconsideration.
Should Abbas continue to shun cooperation with Israel in favour of a toothless UN endorsement, he will also endanger the prospects of a future Palestinian state. Engagement with Israel is crucial. It would open the door to hitherto unknown investment opportunities for a Palestinian economy worryingly reliant on foreign aid. It is equally imperative to share the region’s scarce resources such as water, for the benefit of both peoples.
Abbas would be wise to note that the recent independence of South Sudan was only made possible after six long years of talks between former enemies, following a brutal civil war at the cost of 1.5million lives. Fulfilling the kind of ambitions harboured by the Palestinians, the South Sudanese government is now busy demarcating borders and establishing embassies across the world. By contrast, Kosovo chose the unilateral route to claim independence in 2008, without the agreement of several European states and neighbouring Serbia. Tension has bubbled under the surface between the two sides ever since.
Unfathomably, Abbas is in danger of condemning his own people, the region and the dream of peace to a similarly uncertain fate – All for the sake of a highly symbolic but ultimately tokenistic UN endorsement.