Prof. Uzi Rabi, director of Tel Aviv University\’s renowned Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, deconstructed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas\’ recent bid for political recognition for a national audience of TAU\’s American Friends. During the teleconference, he called Abbas\’ UN General Assembly speech last month a \”calculated risk,\” but one that may lead to a new foundation for bi-lateral talks. The Dayan Center is consistently recognized as one of the region\’s top think-tanks.
Prof. Rabi called the bid part of a delicate balancing act. On one hand the Palestinian Authority is now operating from a stronger position after some success in state-building. At the same time, there is concern among neighboring Middle Eastern leaders that the move for recognition could hamper this continuing success by jeopardizing U.S. aid for the Palestinian population.
\”The gap remains deep\” between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, he said, but the problems they face are not insoluble. In fact, Abbas\’ proposal may provide \”a better point of departure for future Israeli-Palestinian talks.\”
Borders and security still major issues
Prof. Rabi noted that most Israelis will not accept a two-state solution without defensible borders, but could accept one that maintained the Israeli borders established in 1967. If the Palestinians propose borders based upon the 1948 war, he said, a two-state solution would be much less likely, and his proposal would remain unsuccessful.
Whether or not Abbas could deliver a unified Palestinian state is also an open question, Prof. Rabi said. The Palestinian Authority still needs to contend with more radical interests — Hamas and various Islamic elements — and will need to provide verifiable guarantees of security before any statehood proposal could be seriously considered by Israel.
In the wake of Abbas\’ UN speech, Prof. Rabi underlined two issues that relate directly to Israeli internal interests. First, Israel still needs to maintain strong military security along its borders. But along with this, Israel\’s politicians need to \”maintain diplomatic creativity,\” even if this creativity leads to a \”settlement without peace.\” That would surely be better than no settlement at all, he said.
Underlying reasons for the PA\’s UN bid
Prof. Rabi said that the Palestinian Authority\’s purpose in requesting that the UN recognize a Palestinian state is twofold. The primary aim is to exert international pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank; legal recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would delegitimize Jewish settlements in that area. Israel objects to this on the grounds that it bypasses bilateral discourse. According to Prof. Rabi, Israel remains unsure of how to handle this issue.
The PA\’s secondary aim is to tilt the scales in its favor in future bilateral negotiations. Prof. Rabi said that the closer the Palestinians are to gaining international recognition, the less the Israelis will have to bargain with in negotiations on a permanent settlement.
The Quartet has called on both sides to return to the negotiating table. While Israel says it will negotiate without preconditions, the PA will only negotiate if Israel freezes settlement construction. Both the Israelis and Palestinians say they are in favor of renewed negotiations, and each side claims the other is impeding negotiations. At the same time, said Prof. Rabi, neither side has an interest in disrupting their cooperation in security and economic matters in the West Bank.
A Palestinian Spring?
The Palestinian territories have thus far not seen popular unrest on the scale of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. According to Prof. Rabi, one reason for this is that the PA has been able to direct public unrest toward the occupation — particularly now that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has filed his UN bid. Prof. Rabi said that the PA will appropriate the spirit of the Arab Spring to a limited extent and allow for the organization of small-scale rallies to take place on predetermined dates in Palestinian city centers, away from areas bordering on Israeli checkpoints. This, the PA hopes, will help rally public support for Fatah and the UN bid. Prof. Rabi said that it is in the interest of neither the PA nor Israel for this popular protest to spiral out of control.
If the UN bid fails utterly and the current political stalemate continues for several months, Palestinian public dissatisfaction will come to a head and could lead to a mass uprising. Furthermore, this continuing stalemate would chip away at the legitimacy of Fatah and PA President Abbas. The failure of Fatah\’s diplomatic approach could drive the Palestinian public to support Hamas instead. Prof. Rabi also noted that in such a case, Mahmoud Abbas might resign from the presidency.
More regional unknowns
In response to questions from participants, Prof. Rabi touched upon the roles that Turkey and Syria might play in the future. The European Union\’s rejection of Turkey\’s bid for membership may lead the country to a more conservative position, more closely aligning it with the Arab world. That could create the potential for Turkey to serve as a go-between between Israel and the Palestinians, but \”Israel is not ready for that now,\” he said. Assessing the possible effects should Bashar al-Assad be removed from the presidency of Syria, he cautioned that could destabilize the region, leading not to democracy but to a more radical government less disposed to be a behind-the-scenes influence in peace negotiations.
Finally, Prof. Rabi said another key element will be eliminating \”vitriolic speech\” from the education system of both parties. International aid must continue to be directed toward moderating militancy in the Palestinian education system, and Israel must be careful about what is taught in its schools, as well. \”Intimacy between Palestinians and Israelis is not yet possible,\” he said, but a revision of curricula and textbooks minimizing incendiary rhetoric can help achieve a safer, more peaceful co-existence.