The wages of Palestinian ambiguity

"I’ll speak in vague sentences," stated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week at a meeting in Ramallah when asked to discuss Palestinian plans for the period beginning September 2011. That is when the United Nations General Assembly reconvenes, with a request to recognize a Palestinian state probably high on its agenda.

Of course, politicians frequently speak in vague sentences to avoid becoming trapped by their own words. But they never acknowledge the fact. Abbas (Abu Mazen) does, apparently because the Palestinian strategy for September derives much of its strength from ambiguity.

The Palestinian leadership avows that it remains dedicated to the concept of bilateral final status negotiations with Israel. If serious negotiations begin prior to September, stated Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki two weeks ago, the Palestinians will delay the UN recognition request. On the other hand, note both Malki and Abbas, it is not the Palestinians who will compose and introduce the UN resolution but the international community, and not the Palestinians who will decide whether to approach the Security Council or the General Assembly or both.

Thus we are asked to believe that the world is threatening to impose a state on the bewildered Palestinians without consulting them. That is hardly the case. Rather, a clear strategy of ambiguity (pardon the oxymoron) is at work here.

By now, the Palestinian leaders have presumably analyzed the political and ideological constraints Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has wrapped himself in. They understand that the likelihood of an Israeli readiness for serious negotiations before September is very low.

Abbas explained once again last week how, last September at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu had refused to discuss borders until the Palestinians agreed to his concept of security: an Israeli armed presence in the Jordan Valley for the next 40 years. Netanyahu refused to reaffirm the security concept for final status formulated by American General James Jones during the pre-Netanyahu era and ratified by all concerned parties, which is based on a NATO rather than an Israeli presence on the ground in the Palestinian state. And he refused to extend the settlement freeze.

While this explanation can be seen to justify the current Palestinian refusal to renew negotiations, one has to question whether there remains any sincere Palestinian desire to do so. After all, for nine months there was something called a "settlement freeze", yet the Palestinians did not negotiate. At the time, the opportunity beckoned to "call Netanyahu’s bluff" regarding territory and Jerusalem–two issues on which the Israeli prime minister clearly rejects the international consensus regarding the 1967 lines and the location of a Palestinian state capital.

Abbas presumably fears once again getting tied down in negotiations that he apparently knows cannot succeed even under the best of circumstances. As his talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during 2008 demonstrated, there remain significant gaps between the most moderate Palestinian and Israeli positions regarding the settlement blocs, the refugees and the holy places in Jerusalem. Abbas continues to represent the most moderate Palestinian position; Netanyahu rejects Olmert’s far-reaching concessions as too liberal, after they were rejected by Abbas as not liberal enough.

So why bother? Why not capitalize on growing international recognition of a Palestinian state and have one declared at the UN rather than once again failing to negotiate?

Yet Palestinian ambiguity does not end here. Implicit in the successful Palestinian drive for a UN decision to recognize a state within the 1967 borders, is a degree of sober acknowledgement on the part of the PLO leadership that it has tied itself in knots and irrationally delayed the emergence of a state by linking any agreement over territorial final status, which is relatively achievable, to the "existential" issues of the right of return and the "ownership" of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, over which the Palestinian and Israeli narratives are irrevocably at odds.

By asking the UN to dictate a solution to the territorial issue–a state within the 1967 lines with its capital in Jerusalem–the Palestinian leadership is in effect accepting a partial settlement, restricted to territory, in order to bypass its own impossible preconditions for a comprehensive settlement. Yet a UN resolution rejected by Israel could merely exacerbate the conflict.

This could be good news for both Israel and the United States, if only they would open their eyes. The next six months should logically be devoted to leveraging the Palestinian strategy into a win-win situation for the Palestinians and Israel, with international backing. The Palestinians can get statehood, with the borders and capital they want. Israel and the US and additional fair-minded countries can insist, as a condition for their acquiescence, that the UN recognition resolution also reconfirm Israel as a Jewish state and provide for negotiated land swaps, agreed security arrangements and adequate time for negotiations and dealing with settlement issues. The UN can also call upon the Arab League to begin making good on the normalization and regional security arrangements that the Arab Peace Initiative offers to reward Israel. An intractable conflict between a state and a diaspora-centered liberation movement can be turned into a manageable one between two neighboring states.

A lot of good can come out of this Palestinian ambiguity.