The Coming Crisis at the UN -- and How Not to Waste It

The following is an edited version of remarks made in a panel discussion entitled "Goldstone, International Law, and the Coming Crisis in September" held in Los Angeles on April 28, 2011 by Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

The "coming crisis" is a reference to the Palestinian decision to seek UN recognition in September of a Palestinian state with borders on the pre-June 1967 lines, which are really the 1949 armistice lines from the first Arab war against Israel, covering land currently held legitimately by Israel (since it was acquired in 1967 as a result of a defensive war), whose final status -- under multiple UN resolutions, international agreements, and U.S. letters issued by successive American administrations of both political parties --  is required to be determined only in direct negotiations between the parties, and not by unilateral action or a UN diktat.

The coming crisis can be viewed through three different prisms: first, through the prism of the moribund peace process, which for quite a while has been a non-peace non-process; second, through the prism of U.S.-Israeli relations, which in the current administration alternates between Chicago-style diplomacy in odd-numbered years and charm offensives in even-numbered ones; or third, through the broader prism of the role and reputation of the U.S. in international affairs.

I am going to look briefly through all three prisms, and I am going to conclude that the danger of the coming UN resolution is far greater for the United States than for Israel.  The situation will present a test for Israel, but it will be a different test from the one people currently expect, and it will occur not in September but in May.

1. The Non-Peace Non-Process.  To evaluate the effect of a UN resolution on the peace process, recall that eight years ago both Israel and the Palestinian Authority formally adopted the "Performance-Based Roadmap" of the Quartet, a group comprised of the U.S., Russia, the EU, and the UN.  The Quartet always reminds me of the answer to one of Carnac the Magnificent's questions: "Name a superpower, a former superpower, and two organizations with no power."  The Quartet is really the United States: what happens in the Quartet is what the U.S. wants to happen; the Quartet cannot even meet if the U.S. does not want it to meet.

The Quartet's Roadmap is in actuality a U.S. plan, intended to implement the landmark speech of President George W. Bush on June 24, 2002, when the U.S. first endorsed a Palestinian state as a matter of policy (the 2000 Clinton Parameters had been by its terms a "bridging proposal," an attempt to bridge the gap between the parties' respective positions, and not a U.S. plan): the rationale of the plan was that if the Palestinians dismantled their terrorist groups and established a "practicing democracy," the U.S. would recognize a Palestinian state.  

The Roadmap thus consisted of three phases: (1) a sustained effort to dismantle Hamas and other terrorist organizations; followed by (2) establishment of a provisional Palestinian state; followed by (3) final status negotiations on the issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and security.  But no effort was ever made to dismantle Hamas, and after the 2006 Palestinian legislative and the 2007 Hamas coup in Gaza, compliance with Phase I became impossible.  The Palestinians also categorically rejected Phase II, and the U.S. never insisted that they abide by it.

Instead, in the last year of the Bush administration, the Roadmap was "accelerated," to use Secretary Rice's term, with Phase I deferred and Phase II disregarded, in favor of a year-long Phase III final status negotiation, which ended when the Palestinians rejected the Israeli offer of a state on 100% of the West Bank (after land swaps) with a shared Jerusalem.  Secretary of State Rice has said she privately urged the Palestinian president to accept the offer, and ex-Prime Minister Olmert disclosed that he all but begged the Palestinian president to do so, but nothing happened -- and the term of office of the Palestinian president ended in January 2009.  There have been no elections since.

The Palestinian recourse to the UN will mean that not only Phase I and Phase II of the Roadmap but Phase III as well will have been discarded.  The Palestinians cannot go to the UN for determination of a final status issue, to have it determined without negotiation, without reference to any other issue, and without recognition of Israel or security arrangements for it, and pretend that the any phase of the Roadmap still remains.  So the non-peace non-process in that event will be not only moribund but dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could offer a new plan or new concessions when he speaks to Congress at the end of May, but they will be rejected by the Palestinians out of hand. The U.S. could offer its own peace plan, as the New York Times and J Street have been urging President Obama to do, but it will meet the same response, and make the U.S. look powerless and foolish in the process.  So what do you do?  We'll come back to that.

2. U.S.-Israeli Relations.  If you look at the coming UN resolution through the prism of U.S.-Israeli relations, you find that the U.S. is virtually committed, through multiple assurances to Israel in connection with prior withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza, to oppose any action by the UN that would render the Roadmap dead.

In 1997, when Israel withdrew from Hebron and turned it over to the Palestinian Authority, Secretary of State Warren Christopher issued a formal letter to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stating the U.S. position that borders were to be resolved in direct negotiations in which Israel would be entitled to "defensible borders."  In 2004, in connection with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the U.S. issued a letter to Israel, signed by President George W. Bush, reassuring Israel of the "steadfast commitment" of the U.S. to "defensible borders" -- and to the Roadmap as the sole Middle East peace plan.  The term "defensible borders" is an undefined term, but no one reasonably thinks they are the 1967 lines.

When the Palestinians go to the UN in September, the consequences for U.S.-Israeli relations will be profound if the U.S. does not veto a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state with borders that are not only non-negotiated, but indefensible as well.  The result will be not only the end of the Roadmap and the peace process, but a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations far greater than an announcement of Jewish housing in the Jewish area of the capital of the Jewish state.

It is doubtful that any president, especially one who must face the American electorate a year later, would take that course of action.  On the other hand, the current U.S. president is someone who made a Palestinian state one of his central foreign policy objectives, literally from his first day in office; he is someone who reportedly "agonized" over the last UN resolution the Palestinians brought to the UN just a few months ago, and has yet to make a statement signaling to the Palestinians the consequences of their doing it again.

3.The U.S. Role in International Affairs. Which brings us to the third prism - the role and reputation of the U.S. in world affairs.  If the U.S. cannot in September preserve its own Roadmap, and cannot stop a resolution that seeks to have a Palestinian state recognized in a manner that violates not only the Roadmap but multiple U.S. assurances to Israel about the outcome of the peace process, the damage to the U.S. and to its president will be profound -- much greater than those for Israel.

For Israel, it will be the adoption of yet another anti-Israeli resolution by a notoriously anti-Israel institution that will have no effect on the ground; in the real world, as opposed to the world of UN resolutions, it will make the emergence of a Palestinian state less likely rather than more.  For the U.S., however, the consequences will be more severe: it will be a demonstration of extraordinary diplomatic impotence, particularly after the president personally warned the Palestinians that there would be "repercussions" if they went to the UN for a resolution the last time, which they then proceeded to do and as of yet have suffered no repercussions at all.

It will be an indication that U.S. demands can be safely ignored not only by Iran, Syria, and North Korea, but even by a non-state such as the Palestinian Authority.  It will mean that Carnac the Magnificent will be stumped when asked to identify any diplomatic superpowers at all among the members of the Quartet.

So if you are the president of the U.S., and you want to avoid all that, what do you do?  The default reaction will be to pressure Israel, force it to make more concessions, threaten its prime minister with no Oval Office pictures in May unless he includes significant concessions in his speech to Congress -- all in the hope that pre-negotiation concessions might convince the Palestinians to resume negotiations, which you know will go nowhere but at least spare you the coming debacle in the UN.  But that will be a demonstration that the Palestinians, instead of suffering repercussions, will have shown they can get the U.S. to lean, once again, on its own ally -- and it will not be the last time that strategy is employed, either by the Palestinians or by others.

There is another approach that in my view would be more productive for both Israel and the United States.  Israel is currently dealing with an unelected West Bank president about to start the 76th month of his 48-month term, who rules by decree, who lacks the political legitimacy to engage in serious negotiations with Israel even assuming he wanted to; and Israel is dealing in Gaza with a terrorist group in Gaza sworn to destroy it.  The two groups have now announced a unity agreement and a commitment to hold an election within the coming year.  It is doubtful that Fatah and Hamas can actually live "side by side in peace and security" with each other, much less with Israel.  But the surest way to find out is to proceed to hold that election.

In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu should (1) re-iterate that there cannot be two states if the Palestinian one is not willing to recognize a Jewish one with the defensible borders -- the ones that both Democratic and Republican administrations have formally assured Israel must emerge from direct negotiations; and (2) encourage the Palestinians to hold the election they have now agreed to hold, and give the Palestinians the chance to elect leaders willing to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and recognize all prior agreements -- or not.

Netanyahu should say the place for further concessions are not in a speech but in negotiations with a democratically elected Palestinian Authority prepared to make concessions in return.  And he should express the hope that the Palestinians will elect a government with the authority to negotiate on that basis.

The United States should respond to Netanyahu's speech by reiterating that the way forward cannot be an empty UN resolution, but the renunciation of terror and the establishment of a practicing democracy, exactly as President Bush declared at the onset of the Roadmap: because if you are not able to hold an election, or elect leaders committed to peaceful negotiations with your neighbor, you are not ready for a state.  And the "repercussions" in that event should be obvious: the U.S. has no interest in the continued pursuit of a Palestinian state not committed to live side by side in peace and security, much less in continuing to make such a state a central part of American foreign policy.

So the title of this evening's presentation refers to a crisis coming in September, but in my view the key events will occur next month, with Netanyahu's speech and Obama's reaction to it.  The way to avert the crisis coming in September is for both countries to make it clear now, rather than later, that the UN gambit of the Palestinians is not an acceptable way to proceed, and to make it clear what the repercussions will be from a Palestinian rejection of the foundational principles of the Roadmap.

The worst way for Israel to proceed would be to negotiate with itself and offer up pre-negotiation concessions that will be simultaneously pocketed and pronounced insufficient.  It would be better to announce adherence to a principle -- recognition of a Jewish state with defensible borders -- and challenge the Palestinians endorse it in the election they now say they are prepared to hold.

Such an election will produce what used to be called moral clarity.  The Palestinians have had several years to compare the results of life in Gaza under Hamas and life in the West Bank under a development program supported by both Israel and the international community.  Instead of continually begging an unelected Palestinian president to reject Hamas, let the Palestinian people choose, at the voting booth, whether they want to endorse or reject Hamas -- to effectively decide whether they want a peace process, or not.

The current "crisis" should be used to find out: the Palestinians can demonstrate they have a "practicing democracy" that rejects terrorists and terrorism -- the requirement of the Roadmap -- or they can effectively end their chances for a state.  The decision should be theirs.

Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues and blogs at Commentary Magazine's "Contentions."  His archive of American Thinker articles is here.
The following is an edited version of remarks made in a panel discussion entitled "Goldstone, International Law, and the Coming Crisis in September" held in Los Angeles on April 28, 2011 by Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

The "coming crisis" is a reference to the Palestinian decision to seek UN recognition in September of a Palestinian state with borders on the pre-June 1967 lines, which are really the 1949 armistice lines from the first Arab war against Israel, covering land currently held legitimately by Israel (since it was acquired in 1967 as a result of a defensive war), whose final status -- under multiple UN resolutions, international agreements, and U.S. letters issued by successive American administrations of both political parties --  is required to be determined only in direct negotiations between the parties, and not by unilateral action or a UN diktat.

The coming crisis can be viewed through three different prisms: first, through the prism of the moribund peace process, which for quite a while has been a non-peace non-process; second, through the prism of U.S.-Israeli relations, which in the current administration alternates between Chicago-style diplomacy in odd-numbered years and charm offensives in even-numbered ones; or third, through the broader prism of the role and reputation of the U.S. in international affairs.

I am going to look briefly through all three prisms, and I am going to conclude that the danger of the coming UN resolution is far greater for the United States than for Israel.  The situation will present a test for Israel, but it will be a different test from the one people currently expect, and it will occur not in September but in May.

1. The Non-Peace Non-Process.  To evaluate the effect of a UN resolution on the peace process, recall that eight years ago both Israel and the Palestinian Authority formally adopted the "Performance-Based Roadmap" of the Quartet, a group comprised of the U.S., Russia, the EU, and the UN.  The Quartet always reminds me of the answer to one of Carnac the Magnificent's questions: "Name a superpower, a former superpower, and two organizations with no power."  The Quartet is really the United States: what happens in the Quartet is what the U.S. wants to happen; the Quartet cannot even meet if the U.S. does not want it to meet.

The Quartet's Roadmap is in actuality a U.S. plan, intended to implement the landmark speech of President George W. Bush on June 24, 2002, when the U.S. first endorsed a Palestinian state as a matter of policy (the 2000 Clinton Parameters had been by its terms a "bridging proposal," an attempt to bridge the gap between the parties' respective positions, and not a U.S. plan): the rationale of the plan was that if the Palestinians dismantled their terrorist groups and established a "practicing democracy," the U.S. would recognize a Palestinian state.  

The Roadmap thus consisted of three phases: (1) a sustained effort to dismantle Hamas and other terrorist organizations; followed by (2) establishment of a provisional Palestinian state; followed by (3) final status negotiations on the issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and security.  But no effort was ever made to dismantle Hamas, and after the 2006 Palestinian legislative and the 2007 Hamas coup in Gaza, compliance with Phase I became impossible.  The Palestinians also categorically rejected Phase II, and the U.S. never insisted that they abide by it.

Instead, in the last year of the Bush administration, the Roadmap was "accelerated," to use Secretary Rice's term, with Phase I deferred and Phase II disregarded, in favor of a year-long Phase III final status negotiation, which ended when the Palestinians rejected the Israeli offer of a state on 100% of the West Bank (after land swaps) with a shared Jerusalem.  Secretary of State Rice has said she privately urged the Palestinian president to accept the offer, and ex-Prime Minister Olmert disclosed that he all but begged the Palestinian president to do so, but nothing happened -- and the term of office of the Palestinian president ended in January 2009.  There have been no elections since.

The Palestinian recourse to the UN will mean that not only Phase I and Phase II of the Roadmap but Phase III as well will have been discarded.  The Palestinians cannot go to the UN for determination of a final status issue, to have it determined without negotiation, without reference to any other issue, and without recognition of Israel or security arrangements for it, and pretend that the any phase of the Roadmap still remains.  So the non-peace non-process in that event will be not only moribund but dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could offer a new plan or new concessions when he speaks to Congress at the end of May, but they will be rejected by the Palestinians out of hand. The U.S. could offer its own peace plan, as the New York Times and J Street have been urging President Obama to do, but it will meet the same response, and make the U.S. look powerless and foolish in the process.  So what do you do?  We'll come back to that.

2. U.S.-Israeli Relations.  If you look at the coming UN resolution through the prism of U.S.-Israeli relations, you find that the U.S. is virtually committed, through multiple assurances to Israel in connection with prior withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza, to oppose any action by the UN that would render the Roadmap dead.

In 1997, when Israel withdrew from Hebron and turned it over to the Palestinian Authority, Secretary of State Warren Christopher issued a formal letter to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stating the U.S. position that borders were to be resolved in direct negotiations in which Israel would be entitled to "defensible borders."  In 2004, in connection with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the U.S. issued a letter to Israel, signed by President George W. Bush, reassuring Israel of the "steadfast commitment" of the U.S. to "defensible borders" -- and to the Roadmap as the sole Middle East peace plan.  The term "defensible borders" is an undefined term, but no one reasonably thinks they are the 1967 lines.

When the Palestinians go to the UN in September, the consequences for U.S.-Israeli relations will be profound if the U.S. does not veto a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state with borders that are not only non-negotiated, but indefensible as well.  The result will be not only the end of the Roadmap and the peace process, but a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations far greater than an announcement of Jewish housing in the Jewish area of the capital of the Jewish state.

It is doubtful that any president, especially one who must face the American electorate a year later, would take that course of action.  On the other hand, the current U.S. president is someone who made a Palestinian state one of his central foreign policy objectives, literally from his first day in office; he is someone who reportedly "agonized" over the last UN resolution the Palestinians brought to the UN just a few months ago, and has yet to make a statement signaling to the Palestinians the consequences of their doing it again.

3.The U.S. Role in International Affairs. Which brings us to the third prism - the role and reputation of the U.S. in world affairs.  If the U.S. cannot in September preserve its own Roadmap, and cannot stop a resolution that seeks to have a Palestinian state recognized in a manner that violates not only the Roadmap but multiple U.S. assurances to Israel about the outcome of the peace process, the damage to the U.S. and to its president will be profound -- much greater than those for Israel.

For Israel, it will be the adoption of yet another anti-Israeli resolution by a notoriously anti-Israel institution that will have no effect on the ground; in the real world, as opposed to the world of UN resolutions, it will make the emergence of a Palestinian state less likely rather than more.  For the U.S., however, the consequences will be more severe: it will be a demonstration of extraordinary diplomatic impotence, particularly after the president personally warned the Palestinians that there would be "repercussions" if they went to the UN for a resolution the last time, which they then proceeded to do and as of yet have suffered no repercussions at all.

It will be an indication that U.S. demands can be safely ignored not only by Iran, Syria, and North Korea, but even by a non-state such as the Palestinian Authority.  It will mean that Carnac the Magnificent will be stumped when asked to identify any diplomatic superpowers at all among the members of the Quartet.

So if you are the president of the U.S., and you want to avoid all that, what do you do?  The default reaction will be to pressure Israel, force it to make more concessions, threaten its prime minister with no Oval Office pictures in May unless he includes significant concessions in his speech to Congress -- all in the hope that pre-negotiation concessions might convince the Palestinians to resume negotiations, which you know will go nowhere but at least spare you the coming debacle in the UN.  But that will be a demonstration that the Palestinians, instead of suffering repercussions, will have shown they can get the U.S. to lean, once again, on its own ally -- and it will not be the last time that strategy is employed, either by the Palestinians or by others.

There is another approach that in my view would be more productive for both Israel and the United States.  Israel is currently dealing with an unelected West Bank president about to start the 76th month of his 48-month term, who rules by decree, who lacks the political legitimacy to engage in serious negotiations with Israel even assuming he wanted to; and Israel is dealing in Gaza with a terrorist group in Gaza sworn to destroy it.  The two groups have now announced a unity agreement and a commitment to hold an election within the coming year.  It is doubtful that Fatah and Hamas can actually live "side by side in peace and security" with each other, much less with Israel.  But the surest way to find out is to proceed to hold that election.

In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu should (1) re-iterate that there cannot be two states if the Palestinian one is not willing to recognize a Jewish one with the defensible borders -- the ones that both Democratic and Republican administrations have formally assured Israel must emerge from direct negotiations; and (2) encourage the Palestinians to hold the election they have now agreed to hold, and give the Palestinians the chance to elect leaders willing to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and recognize all prior agreements -- or not.

Netanyahu should say the place for further concessions are not in a speech but in negotiations with a democratically elected Palestinian Authority prepared to make concessions in return.  And he should express the hope that the Palestinians will elect a government with the authority to negotiate on that basis.

The United States should respond to Netanyahu's speech by reiterating that the way forward cannot be an empty UN resolution, but the renunciation of terror and the establishment of a practicing democracy, exactly as President Bush declared at the onset of the Roadmap: because if you are not able to hold an election, or elect leaders committed to peaceful negotiations with your neighbor, you are not ready for a state.  And the "repercussions" in that event should be obvious: the U.S. has no interest in the continued pursuit of a Palestinian state not committed to live side by side in peace and security, much less in continuing to make such a state a central part of American foreign policy.

So the title of this evening's presentation refers to a crisis coming in September, but in my view the key events will occur next month, with Netanyahu's speech and Obama's reaction to it.  The way to avert the crisis coming in September is for both countries to make it clear now, rather than later, that the UN gambit of the Palestinians is not an acceptable way to proceed, and to make it clear what the repercussions will be from a Palestinian rejection of the foundational principles of the Roadmap.

The worst way for Israel to proceed would be to negotiate with itself and offer up pre-negotiation concessions that will be simultaneously pocketed and pronounced insufficient.  It would be better to announce adherence to a principle -- recognition of a Jewish state with defensible borders -- and challenge the Palestinians endorse it in the election they now say they are prepared to hold.

Such an election will produce what used to be called moral clarity.  The Palestinians have had several years to compare the results of life in Gaza under Hamas and life in the West Bank under a development program supported by both Israel and the international community.  Instead of continually begging an unelected Palestinian president to reject Hamas, let the Palestinian people choose, at the voting booth, whether they want to endorse or reject Hamas -- to effectively decide whether they want a peace process, or not.

The current "crisis" should be used to find out: the Palestinians can demonstrate they have a "practicing democracy" that rejects terrorists and terrorism -- the requirement of the Roadmap -- or they can effectively end their chances for a state.  The decision should be theirs.

Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues and blogs at Commentary Magazine's "Contentions."  His archive of American Thinker articles is here.

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