Donald Macintyre: Palestinians throw down challenge to Obama and UN

Tuesday 17 November 2009 01:00 GMT

As so often in the Middle East, we have been here before. The latest suggestion – that a frustrated Palestinian leadership would unilaterally declare a state and invite international recognition for it – is not new. It was made a decade ago by Yasser Arafat when Benjamin Netanyahu, then as now, was Prime Minister. It was made again after the collapse of the Camp David talks a year later, when then Prime Minister Ehud Barak, like some of Mr Netanyahu's more hawkish ministers now, threatened to annex the most populous settlements in the West Bank in retaliation. And as the second intifada – and Israel's determined military response to it – gathered momentum, nothing came of it.

The conventional wisdom is that nothing will come of it this time either. Nevertheless it is worth looking at what has changed since then. First, Palestinian state-building in the occupied West Bank has greatly advanced since then, thanks in large part to the determined efforts of an able Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, efforts praised by Mr Netanyahu himself. Even the Israeli military has acknowledged the strides made on security. Indeed part of the Palestinians' frustration is their belief that they have fulfilled their obligations under the six-year-old Road Map, while Israel has failed to fulfil its parallel obligations to halt settlement building and remove outposts. With the World Bank already saying that Palestinian service delivery exceeds that of several of its regional neighbours, Mr Fayyad is entitled to believe that when his two-year plan is completed in 2011, and if (and of course it's a very big if) the daunting problems of Gaza can be overcome, the PA will be match-fit for statehood.

So it's hardly surprising that unilateralism has its attractions. Yesterday Saeb Erekat, whose raison d'etre is negotiations with Israel, denied that a unilateral declaration of independence was on the agenda, and insisted that all the Palestinians were seeking was a Security Council resolution in which the UN would for the first time establish clear terms of reference for negotiations for a state based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and an equitable solution for refugees.

Yet it hardly matters for now what such a UN resolution would lead to. The Palestinians want an international endorsement; they see it as necessary to underpin the state, which they do not trust will otherwise emerge from yet another round of negotiations now. And they fear the collapse of the Palestinian peace camp if such talks fail once again.

Israel insists that instead of "running to the UN" the Palestinians should put Mr Netanyahu to the test by negotiating with him now. The US agrees with Israel, which is one of the reasons that Israel remains optimistic that America – and perhaps its European allies – will veto any such recourse to the UN.

Is Israel right? Will President Obama remove yet another lever over Israel by promising to use the veto? Will Britain and France similarly oppose a resolution that restates their own long-held positions on the Middle East? It could be one of the more interesting diplomatic dilemmas in Western capitals over the coming months.

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