Palestinian leaders from President Mahmoud Abbas down have alarmed Israeli ministers by swinging their weight behind a planned effort to secure UN backing for a unilaterally declared independent state in the West Bank and Gaza.
In an innovative strategy which would not depend on the success of currently stalled negotiations with Israel, the leaders are preparing a push to secure formal UN Security Council support for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders as a crucial first step towards the formation of a state.
Although there is no fixed timetable, Palestinian officials see the second half of 2011 as a plausible starting date for such a process. That is when the Palestinian Authority is due to fulfil Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's widely applauded two-year plan for completing work on all the institutions needed for a fully-fledged state.
One senior Palestinian official said here that the new plan was "the last resort of the peace camp in Palestine" given the current negotiating impasse left in the wake of the US failure to persuade Israel to agree a total freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank as a preliminary to talks.
The moderate Palestinian leadership also sees the unilateral process as a viable – and, in internal political terms, significantly more credible – alternative to surrendering to intense US pressure to enter negotiations without the settlement freeze.
As the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to denounce the Palestinian plan in a speech last night, Israel's President Shimon Peres declared in Brazil, "A Palestinian state cannot be established without a peace agreement. It's impossible and it will not work. It's unacceptable that they change their minds every day. Bitterness is not a policy."
But officials here are hoping that, without any progress towards "final status" negotiations on a future state, the US could be persuaded not to veto such a resolution. Explicit UN Security Council support for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders would, the officials believe, dramatically intensify legal and moral pressure on Israel to lift the 42-year-old occupation.
Some officials are even drawing a direct comparison with the diplomatic process by which Israel itself was established as a state: a UN resolution endorsing it in November 1947, the Declaration of Independence by David Ben Gurion in May 1948 and the subsequent swift recognition by the US and Soviet Union.
The strategy is tied closely to – though not specified in – Mr Fayyad's plan, "Palestine: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State", and is thought to have originated with the Prime Minister, an independent who has recently publicly questioned the willingness of Mr Netanyahu's government to grant more than a "mickey mouse" state in any negotiations. But it has since had strong backing from Mr Abbas, and other leading figures in his Fatah faction.
At a commemoration of his predecessor Yasser Arafat's death, Mr Abbas declared last week, "The Palestinian state is a fact which the world recognises". Saying that more than 100 countries supported Palestinian aspirations for a state, he added: "Now we are fighting to get the world to recognise the borders of our nation." Mr Abbas, who reaffirmed his intention not to run again as President, has insisted that he will not return to negotiations without a settlement freeze and clear terms of reference specifying a state based on 1967 borders, East Jerusalem as the capital, and an agreed solution for refugees.
The leading Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat yesterday followed his Fatah colleague Mohammed Dahlan in strongly endorsing the plan. "We have taken an Arab foreign ministers' decision to seek the help of the international community," Mr Erekat told Reuters, adding that the US and other leading international players would be consulted before any UN move. "If the Americans cannot get the Israelis to stop settlement activities, they should also not cover them when we decide to go to the Security Council," he added.
Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian government's media centre, said that the international community should confront Israel with a choice of a clear negotiating path towards a state based on 1967 borders, or international recognition for a Palestinian state without an agreement. "They cannot block the negotiating approach to two states and at the same time refuse the alternative," he added.
He said that progress by the current "peace camp" in charge in Ramallah was essential if it was not to "run out of ammunition" against the alternative offered by Hamas. "I honestly think there is no future for the peace camp in Palestine if this is not going to work," he said, adding that it would be "political suicide" for the present leadership to enter negotiations on present terms. He said the international community had long been striving "for an agreed end to the conflict – a two-state solution as a result of an agreement. But we are saying it's not working. Why not recognise a Palestinian state when it is ready, without necessarily relying on Israeli consent?"
Mr Khatibadded that recognition for a unilaterally declared state would parallel Israel's recognition as in 1948. "The other side was not [then] expected to accept. There was no consent by either the Palestinians or the Arab [states]." Such a strategy would be severely complicated by Gaza, if it were still controlled by Hamas at the time – but no more so than the negotiations which the US is currently trying to promote.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to reject the Palestinian proposal. Addressing a forum on the Middle East in Jerusalem, he said, "There is no substitute for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority...any unilateral path will only unravel the framework of agreements between us and will only bring unilateral steps from Israel's side."
Independence: Getting past the roadblock
Q. Would a unilateral declaration of independence carry risks?
A. Even if it were underpinned by a UN endorsement of a Palestinian state based on the areas occupied in 1967, it would certainly be a lurch into uncharted diplomatic waters. But some Western diplomats believe it would remove any lingering doubts about the meaning of UN Resolution 242, on which Palestinian and international demands for an end to the occupation begun in 1967 are based.
Q. What might be the advantage for the Palestinians?
A. Israel technically regards the West Bank as a disputed territory the final status of which is a matter for negotiation. Palestinians hope that a process of obtaining UN Security Council support for independence, followed by major individual countries recognising the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza as a state, would greatly and immediately put Israel under pressure to withdraw its forces and civilian settlers from the occupied territories in the West Bank. At the most extreme interpretation, Israel would then be regarded as occupying a foreign country. The UN could also grant the new Palestine immediate and full membership, with voting and proposing rights, in major international bodies.
Q. What is Israel's main problem with the proposal?
A. Israel argues that such a unilateral declaration would not only violate its right to reach an agreement on borders with the Palestinians, but also directly cuts across the 1995 Oslo-derived agreement that neither side should take unilateral steps affecting the status of the territories.