Abbas’s bid for UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member state seems set to succeed. Israel has missed another golden opportunity to capitalize on this move to undermine Islamist extremism and assure Israel’s future as the democratic homeland of the Jews.
Abba Eban famously quipped that the Palestinians never miss a chance to miss a chance. Quite unfortunately, the same holds true for Israel. Oxford historian Avi Shlaim has documented in detail how Golda Meir systematically refused to engage with Sadat’s four attempts to offer Israel a peace agreement from 1970 onwards. As a result, thousands lost their lives in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Future historians will write about Israel’s failure to engage with the Palestinian UN bid in the same vein. It didn’t take the ability of a prophet to realize in late 2010, when Mahmoud Abbas started to plan this move, that this was a golden opportunity for Israel—and I argued as much in March 2011.
UN recognition of a Palestinian state could have cut the Gordian Knot of the Israel-Palestine conflict, if Israel had handled the situation wisely. At the time, I suggested that Israel should endorse Abbas’s bid but demand crucial alterations: the Palestine bid should have been conditional on Palestinians’ renunciation of any further demands on Israel, including the right of return. Israel would have achieved the seemingly impossible: Once the international community would have defined the legitimate borders of the future Palestinian state, Hamas’s rejectionist stance would have become irrelevant, particularly if the whole Islamic world would have voted in favor of the resolution.
But Bibi and Lieberman used all the leverage they had to undermine Abbas’ bid, and Abbas made the crucial mistake of insisting on going to the UN Security Council, where defeat was guaranteed because of U.S. veto power. Bibi’s speech at the UN General Assembly was praised by the shortsighted. He called the UN a “house of lies,” quoting the Lubavicher Rebbe, as if this carried any weight for the world. He was fêted in Israel and by right-leaning American Jews—and missed a golden opportunity for Israel.
Abbas has learned his lesson: this time he submits his request to the UN General Assembly, where he is guaranteed a majority—and a moral victory. Both Britain and France are bound to vote for his bid.
Israel and the U.S. have tried everything to force Abbas off the current bid. Lieberman threatened to produce the Palestinian Authority’s collapse—one of the most idiotic moves possible: This would have burdened Israel with economic and administrative responsibility for the West Bank, and it would have laid the groundwork for 2.5 million Palestinians to demand Israeli citizenship. Even Lieberman realized that this was a no-brainer, and stopped behaving like a bully.
Abbas had nothing left to lose. Hamas has been undermining his leadership position, and both the U.S. administration and Netanyahu realized that they couldn’t stop his UN bid. At the last minute they tried to soften the UN bid’s wording—but now it’s too late: Abbas is in no mood for compromise, and he is bound to win, without renouncing the option of making use of the International Criminal Court against Israeli violations of international law. Israel will miss another opportunity to move towards peace with Palestine on terms that are favorable to its interests, and it will incur a major diplomatic defeat.
We can only hope that Netanyahu will realize the potential of this defeat. Likud has now officially turned into an extreme right-wing party, and he will have great difficulty reigning in his own extremist party members who don’t have the slightest clue about international politics. Abbas’s victory will provide him with the ammunition to convince them that their extreme, anti-liberal nationalism is bound to turn Israel into a pariah state, and to initiate genuine negotiations towards a just peace. But Netanyahu’s record so far leaves little room for optimism that he will use this opportunity wisely.