As the United Nations General Assembly convened last week, national and global leaders came together to tackle the major issues facing the international community: the refugee crisis, the fight against violent extremism, Venezuela’s economic crisis, among many others. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from the most pressing issue, and yet it dominated discussion on the UNGA floor.
In recent months, there has been speculation that the Obama administration will release an outline of parameters laying out its preferred positions on core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such parameters would serve as the reference point upon which future negotiations would be based—specifically delineating the international consensus on the final-status issues, including: borders, land swaps, the right of return, the division of Jerusalem, a demilitarized Palestinian State, and Israel’s definition as a Jewish state.
Endorsing a formal UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution that encompasses these parameters or delivering a public address that lays them out is seen as a last-ditch effort by the Obama administration to preserve the possibility for a two-state solution, thereby making up for the administration’s failure in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. While the window to leave a lasting legacy on the conflict comes to a close, making a move on parameters is tempting to the White House. There remains a panoply of reasons why America’s support for such a resolution may have a detrimental effect by alienating the respective parties and further enervating them from taking constructive action towards a resolution.
The most compelling case for a UNSC resolution remains Resolution 242, passed in 1967. Resolution 242 introduced the ‘land for peace’ paradigm, and set the stage for the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt following the Six-Day War. And while the climate of 2016 in no way resembles that of 1967, Resolution 242 indeed bore fruit – albeit ten years after it was passed – when in 1977-79, Egypt broke ranks with the Arab League and entered into bilateral negotiations with Israel, leading to a separate peace with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the Sinai. It took the Palestinians almost twenty years to accept the parameters of 242, and ever since they have steadfastly stuck to their conviction that the guidelines of any negotiation be based on international resolutions. Making sure that those resolutions reflect the current realities might be a path toward movement from both parties leading toward a comprehensive deal.
In addition, there is an argument to be made for a non-binding parameters speech. Both sides have historically looked to the U.S. to mediate and guide negotiations, and this may be the last chance for an American president to propose and codify such a framework, as both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump have rejected the notion that any outside force should impose parameters on the Israelis and Palestinians. Laying out such a framework can eliminate some of the empty posturing during the next round of talks as both sides will have a clear foundation upon which to build.
Nevertheless, the parameters approach is more likely than not to lead nowhere. For starters, a UNSC resolution is not an easy process; negotiations amongst UN Security Council members promise to be difficult, with no assurance that the resolution will be in line with America’s positions. Second, even if the parameters resolution passes, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders will provide substantial pushback, which could have unforeseen political consequences for the incoming president. AIPAC recently sponsored a letter with the support of 88 senators calling for Obama to veto any “one-sided” resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that may be submitted the UNSC. While the language of the letter remains vague, it confirms that Israel is uncomfortable with the idea. Third, the lack of international consensus on the final-status issues is another complicating factor bound to come to the fore, as past discussions between the UN and the Quartet have exposed rifts in positions. Finally, at a time when Obama’s legacy in the Middle East is scarred by the quagmire in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the disintegration of Iraq, and a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, what leverage can the president use to convince the Arab states to expend the necessary political capital to support the potentially controversial aspects of a resolution?
The question remains then, devoid of any peace process, what function, if any will a resolution play? For the Palestinians, promoting such a resolution remains the only weapon left in Abbas’s arsenal after having exhausted all other avenues towards gaining admittance to UN institutions. With little-to-no political capital to invest in making the necessary compromises needed for rapprochement, a resolution is a last ditch effort to demonstrate gains from his tenure as Palestinian president. While public support for the Palestinian Authority has continued to plummet, and municipal elections appear perennially on hold, a resolution favorable to the Palestinians has the potential to reignite the Palestinian people’s scant belief in the dividends of diplomacy. However, any UNSC resolution containing compromises that are hard to swallow will likely be rejected by any aspirant looking to succeed Abbas, with major sticking points being the resolution of the refugee issue, and the recognition of the Jewish character of Israel.
As for the Israelis, Netanyahu and his party remain firm in their assertion that no outside force impose parameters upon the parties. If a resolution was passed or parameters were released, Netanyahu would almost certainly distance himself from almost everything they contain. This could cause trouble in the short term by further empowering the intransigent factions in Israeli society who reject any moves to leave the West Bank and advance a two-state solution. To wit, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, worried about outside pressure on the Israeli government, has advanced plans to legitimize Jewish construction in the West Bank through “general reform that will legitimize in one thrust all construction in Judea and Samaria and preempt any further evacuations.”
If parameters, whether binding or not, had a chance of moving the Israeli political needle, then it would be worth some serious thought. Yet perhaps more disheartening than the views of the hard-liners are those of Israeli politicians who, taking stock of the stalled two-state negotiation process, view the climate as too dangerous for compromise of any sort and feel safest promoting a continuation of the status quo. The insistence on the so-called status quo options leave Israel stuck somewhere in between a one-state and two-state solution, and promise what can be described as de-facto solidification of Israeli control over the West Bank, abandoning the principle of Palestinian sovereignty, and allowing the legal and political status of Palestinian living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to remain what it is.
A UNSC resolution is not going to convince this segment of Israeli leaders that they can afford to gamble on a Palestinian state. It will instead create an even more entrenched bunker mentality and is unlikely to convince them that an agreement is possible. Israel will be stuck with an internationally endorsed, U.S. backed set of parameters, which goes against Netanyahu’s desires, and the Palestinians will likely be forced to acquiesce to certain aspects of the parameters that are not in their favor.
The reluctance highlights a common refrain in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: The solutions are simple, but not easy. Israeli opposition to the framework lies in the issue of returning to pre-1967 borders, and accepting East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, while for the Palestinians, their reticence stems from the bitter pill that is the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the symbolic resolution of the refugee issue, and the lack of a concrete timetable for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank.
Amidst this gloomy situation, there remains little hope that a resolution or declaration of parameters will usher in short-term advancements. Even if a draft resolution is in the works, it is sure that every comma, period, and definite article will have been meticulously, painstakingly scrutinized, as much of the weight of any resolution lies in its language. The devil really is in the details, and sometimes even those details have unintended consequences. A clear example of this lies in Resolution 242, where through the absence of the definite article the, Israel claimed that it was not responsible for withdrawing from all the territories occupied in the recent 1967 war.
If all goes as planned, the administration hopes to secure an achievement that future U.S. administrations could not undo. The ultimate goal of which would be to provide a certain degree of breathing room for the two sides; whereby if the largest concessions are ironed out in advance of any negotiations, leaders will be less worried of wasting the crucial political capital required to advance peace. Yet, even the best case scenario, in which all UNSC members can agree on language for a resolution that is fair and even-handed with both sides, does not guarantee that anything will change. Resolutions and parameters may seem like a good idea to shake things up, but with little chance of them succeeding in their goals, they could very well do more harm than good.
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