Alpher discusses the UN General Assembly decision to recognize a Palestinian observer state , the effect of the vote and its aftermath on Israel's relations with Europe and the United States, what happens now on the ground, a general summation, and where do the Likud and Labor primaries and Livni's decision to run leave us?
Q. What's your take on last Friday's UN General Assembly decision to recognize a Palestinian observer state? Good or bad for Israel? Good or bad for a two-state solution?
A. Ultimately, good for Israel because this dramatic shake-up advances a two-state solution with international backing, breaking the stalemate of recent years, and a two-state solution enables Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic. In the short term, the decision is bad for the pro-settler Netanyahu government, especially at election time, because it paints Israeli into a corner of international diplomatic isolation.
Accordingly, the decision and its aftermath are potentially dangerous for security and stability in the Israeli-Palestinian complex. After all, Palestinian "statehood" based on this decision is a flimsy fiction: the PLO leadership of this observer state has no control over 60 percent of West Bank territory that it claims because Israel rules it, let alone over the Gaza Strip where a rival movement rules. It is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its Gulf Arab benefactors are abandoning it in favor of Hamas in Gaza, which represents the Islamist wave of the future. And Netanyahu seems determined to make it "pay". Once the euphoria passes, the newly-anointed Palestinian state faces serious challenges to its survival. And if it fails, the consequences for the region are bleak.
Q. How would you characterize the effect of the vote and its aftermath on Israel's relations with Europe and the United States?
A. Here my own personal experience is relevant. When PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas began talking about statehood recognition by the United Nations some two years ago, my reaction was, "this is the best thing that could happen to Israel." Recognition of a Palestinian state, whatever the wrinkles and dilemmas it generates--and they could be huge--is the first positive step toward a two-state solution in more than four years.
Abbas originally sought, and failed to achieve, Security Council recognition, which would have had a far more profound effect internationally and on prospects for a two-state solution. I spent a good portion of the past two years lobbying in various quarters to leverage that Palestinian initiative into a win-win proposition. I suggested adding a variety of provisions that favor Israel, such as UN recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a demand for land swaps around the 1967 lines, security guarantees for Israel, special provisions recognizing the new state's lack of control over Gaza, and a Palestinian commitment to negotiate all outstanding differences and refrain from appealing to international judicial bodies.
That proposal was rejected out of hand by Washington, which has consistently opposed the UN route and was one of only nine countries that opposed last Thursday's UN vote. In contrast, in the chanceries and foreign ministries of the major capitals of Europe prior to the September 2011 Security Council debate on the issue, I encountered interest. Indeed, in one foreign ministry I was shown a contingency proposal that looked a lot like mine. But a year ago, the British, French, Germans, and Italians all acknowledged that on the Palestinian issue they would take their signals from Washington. The Germans added, inevitably, that they felt a special historical obligation to support Israel on issues like this, regardless of the logic involved.
Now we confront a largely symbolic UN General Assembly vote on a resolution to recognize Palestinian non-member observer state status, in which there are no win-win features and in which nearly all the Europeans defied the US and Israeli position and either voted in favor or abstained. Even Germany abstained. (The Europeans did try at the last minute to convince the PLO to accept some win-win provisions, but without American backing this gambit had little chance.) So my first observation is that Israel, or more precisely the Netanyahu government, just suffered a major setback in its relations with Europe, while Washington suffered a minor setback. Unless the Obama administration secretly encouraged the Europeans to vote against Israel, which seems possible when you hear Rahm Emanuel describe how angry at Netanyahu President Barack Obama really is.
The entire affair leaves the strong impression that the world is fed up with Netanyahu's lies and his government's drive to swallow up the West Bank. Many, Europeans in particular, were prepared to stick their neck out and support a provocative, non-operative UN resolution just to make that point.
A. In the short term, the UN vote could bode ill for Israeli-Palestinian relations in general and peace talks in particular. Netanyahu has already responded with "punishments" that just make matters worse: withholding about $100 million in taxes and excises collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (ostensibly, to pay the PA's debt to the Israel Electric Company), announcing construction of 3,000 new dwellings on the West Bank (albeit almost entirely in the "blocs" that are destined to remain part of Israel in a likely two-state solution) and, worst of all, advancing preparations to build a Jewish neighborhood in area E-1 east of Jerusalem, a move that would virtually foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state that enjoys north-south contiguity and is linked territorially to its capital in East Jerusalem.
True, the Israeli response could have been worse--e.g., annexing part of the West Bank or renouncing the Oslo accords based on the claim that the Palestinian UN appeal was a major violation. And Israel's "punishment" could ultimately prove to be an attempt to generate bargaining chips: "we'll stop the construction and deliver your taxes if you commit not to go to the ICC". But it is hardly a prelude to serious negotiations. Indeed, the withholding of hundreds of millions of shekels in taxes collected by Israel for the Palestinians could prove to be the last straw that brings down the PA. Already PA security forces are not receiving full salaries; how long before they cease preventing terror attacks on Israelis and the next intifada begins?
Meanwhile, the new Palestinian "state" is likely to begin arguing that Israeli settlements and the IDF West Bank presence are infringements on its sovereignty. Where it will take that claim is an open question. President Mahmoud Abbas will undoubtedly now also launch a new attempt at reconciliation with Hamas, based on the assumption that the UN triumph restores PLO prestige to the same level as Hamas after the recent Gaza fighting. Netanyahu, fighting an election in which he perceives the main threat to Likud Beitenu as coming from the far right, will respond even more angrily.
A. None of this is likely to endear Israel to the Europeans and the US when it next seeks their support for its stance in final-status talks or against a Palestinian appeal to the International Criminal Court. Just how far apart Israel and Europe are was evident on Sunday, when it was reported that the French and British are considering recalling their ambassadors for consultation over the "punishment" issue while Netanyahu opened his Cabinet meeting with the fantastic statement that the Palestinian Authority (he meant the PLO, but accuracy is not a consideration here) "was waging a struggle against the very existence of the State of Israel".
Just yesterday, Netanyahu's spokespersons were arguing that the UN resolution does nothing but upgrade the status of the PLO delegation at Turtle Bay, and that 138 votes in favor of Palestinian statehood constitute a mere addition of eight to the list of countries that have long recognized Palestinian statehood anyway, for all the good it did them. Now an internationally-recognized Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders is an existential threat to an Israel that has endorsed the two-state solution! And now it is in violation of the Oslo agreements--as if successive Israeli governments had not also trampled those agreements with settlement construction.
The Obama administration will be forgiven if it views the withholding of taxes and building of settlements as a calculated snub by Netanyahu. After all, it advised Israel against these moves and seemingly had reason to expect, in return for its unpopular support for Israel at the UN, that Jerusalem would coordinate its response with Washington.
If Netanyahu feels free to escalate the crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations to the detriment of Israel's security and long-term integrity as a Jewish state, and to insult President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton in so doing, he presumably has no near-term plans to solicit a forward-looking peace process with Abbas. Still, I believe that UN endorsement of Palestinian statehood, however problematic the resolution itself, will ultimately prove to be a step in the right direction--particularly if the Obama administration now gets forcefully behind serious negotiations.
Q. Moving to Israeli politics, where do the Likud and Labor primaries and Livni's decision to run leave us?
A. The Likud primaries produced a list heavily weighted with far right-wingers like Moshe Feiglin who make Netanyahu look positively dovish by comparison. Gone from the list are genuine liberals like Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Michael Eitan. The Labor primaries produced a more balanced list, though without any prominent Russian immigrant or Arab candidates and with few candidates other than Amir Peretz to challenge Shelly Yacimovich's emphasis on social and economic issues at the expense of the peace process. With Tzipi Livni's HaTnua (the Movement) and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid in the running, Israel's voters confront three liberal centrist parties, leaving Meretz alone on the Zionist left.
True, Livni is running as a distinctly pro-peace process candidate and this may have more resonance in the coming weeks if Israeli-Palestinian relations deteriorate in the aftermath of the UN vote and Netanyahu's reaction. But Livni also has to run against her own record of relative failure both as a peace negotiator and as a party leader (Kadima) who failed to form coalitions, join coalitions or rebuff challenges to her leadership. Moreover, her effort to cobble together a list of candidates based on "journeyman" politicians who seemingly move effortlessly from party to party does not inspire confidence.
Ehud Barak's surprise withdrawal from politics did not change the picture at the center of the political spectrum, since his Atzmaut party had little chance of scoring more than three or four mandates. All three remaining center parties claim to aspire to replace Netanyahu. Judging by the polls, even if they combine forces they won't. So the subtext is, which of them will join a Netanyahu government--assuming, after the elections, he is inclined or politically free enough of pressure from his own right wing to invite them in. Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea summed up the situation to Netanyahu's left (really, the center), accurately: "The opposition in Israel is like the opposition in Syria: it is united in its desire to play a role in government, but split over everything else."