Yesterday, Palestine made history when it won an overwhelmingly majority of states voting “yes” at the United Nations to elevate Palestine’s status to non-member observer state in the General Assembly. 138 countries voted “yes,” nine countries voted “no,” and 41 countries “abstained.”
Today, the question on the minds of so many is “what’s next?” If Israel’s greatest fears are confirmed, Palestine could bring Israel to the International Criminal Court, which Palestine’s new status at the UN allows it to do. Or, the U.S. and Israel could carry out their threats to withhold aid and tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority, a step that would squeeze the PA’s already over-stretched funds.
The question on my mind, though, is how the momentum from this step can also be a tool to move the peace process forward. Abbas’ request calls for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital; these lines are accountable to the parameters of the internationally accepted two-state solution. Yet, any solution has seemed out of reach. Many, especially with the continued expansion of settlements and since the recent escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel, have stated that the two-state solution is on its last leg, if not dead already. Further, the attitude on the street recently in both Israel and Palestine has indicated the further entrenchment of both sides rather than an openness or belief that an agreement is possible. Israelis continue to move right in their political values, and continue to accept the political rhetoric of the conservative government that the 1967 lines are indefensible borders. Meanwhile, the recent war boosted Hamas’ popularity in both Gaza and the West Bank, taking important gravitas away from those moderates in Palestine who seek to bolster non-violent actions as a means to end to the occupation, establish an independent state, and achieve peace.
This bid can be the chance the moderates need to take back the reigns; this may be a chance to revive the two-state solution. Many representatives of the PA, including President Mahmoud Abbas himself, have said that as soon as the bid passes, he will call on Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel to immediately return to negotiations, without preconditions. Legitimacy-wise, this is great timing — if there would be any time when the people of Palestine would be willing to give the moribund peace process (and Abbas, for that matter) a chance, it would be a time like now when hopefulness for the future is higher. Meanwhile, Israelis may see that there was not as much to fear from this move in the UN as they have been told to, and their belief that there is in fact a partner on the other side that they should give a chance to could grow.
Nonetheless, this optimism is incredibly cautious. Abbas may call for negotiations conditioned on a settlement freeze; Israel has been unwilling to take this step, while expansion continues to physically erode the two-state solution. Meanwhile, Israel made it clear yesterday at the UN that Palestine must recognize Israel as a Jewish state for them to be willing to sit at the negotiating table, although Bibi has dropped this call at times in the past. Most concerning are looming Israeli elections in January. There are no realistic chances for negotiations before then, and the momentum for forward progress that we are seeing now could very likely dissipate by then. The Palestinians may become consumed with a focus on reconciliation among themselves, while the Israelis could vote for the most conservative Likud slate we’ve ever seen, most of whom do not support a two-state solution (not to mention the other parties Likud would caucus with if they win).
But as an average person and an activist, not a politician or a pundit, I have to remain hopeful, at least for today. After years of stalemate, it was impossible to visualize a step that could be taken to make a dent in the status quo; this UN bid was able to succeed at least in that. It may have the potential to do much more for securing a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine by paving the path forward into a serious negotiations process — if the partners are willing.