I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t convinced that the Palestinian UN bid was a good idea. I thought—and still think—it will prompt Israel to feel ever more isolated at a time when the BDS and Israel-is-an-apartheid-state movements are continuing and in some ways seemingly gaining ground; when the Arab Spring is overturning the comfortable status quo; and when Turkey and Egypt have turned against it. Underscoring Israel’s siege mentality will only make it less forthcoming in efforts to restart negotiations and to adopt an even harder line in the event. I also think it raises unrealistic expectations for Palestinians. And it simply can’t be operationalized at a time when Palestine is divided into two blocs run by rival groups competing for power.
But I also now think that one medium-term benefit that it does provide is to light a fire under Israel. Or to be more specific, under certain Israeli leaders. There appears to be very little otherwise to convince the current government that it needs to take any prominent steps toward peace without piling on more of its own conditions.
To be sure, the stagnation in the peace process isn’t all Israel’s fault. It is also the fault of Hamas, which continuously attacks (rhetorically and physically) Israel’s right to exist; of Mahmoud Abbas, who has been much less forthcoming on final status issues than commonly assumed—during the ten-month (partial, at best) settlement freeze that he had demanded, he came to the table only at the end; and of Arab states, most of whose leaders still refuse to show the slightest gesture of humanity to Israel. It is also the fault of Republicans and Democrats in the US who seem convinced—wrongly—that the Jewish vote is in play for 2012, and therefore, in playing politics with Israel without concern for those who actually live there, pushed President Obama into the position of having to “defend” Israel by not pressing it to make any concessions to the Palestinians. The result is a completely unbalanced negotiating strategy that has no hope of bringing the Palestinians on board.
But still, it is clear that Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu has done almost nothing to push the peace process forward. But the UN bid might show Israel that time and events really are moving against it. Many in the government will not, of course, be convinced of this. But there are enough pragmatists around who might pay attention to the signs of the times.
Ehud Barak and many members of Shas understand the occupation is problematic, and are either actively interested in ending it or ambivalent about how to respond to it; in both cases, there is space for considering new policies toward the West Bank. Similarly, Labor and Kadima are both committed to actively dealing with the situation rather than pretending there is no situation. And in Likud there are leaders who understand the moral, strategic, and tactical drawbacks of continuing the status quo. Even Netanyahu has shown himself grudgingly willing to accommodate to such realities and, though as reluctantly and minimally as possible, proven able to make changes (e.g., the Wye River Memorandum). Finally, the Israeli public itself has a long history of impatience with leaders who are perceived to have weakened relations with the United States, and expressing it through the polls.
The only way the peace process will gain any traction in Israel—one of the two key parties to the conflict—is if the pragmatists are convinced it’s time to move. The Palestinian efforts at the UN are a prominent reminder that the time is here.