Everyone knows that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for statehood through the United Nations Security Council will fail. Even if the Palestinians get the nine votes needed , the United States will veto it. And yet the strategy is brilliant. Why? Because the Palestinians win even if they lose.
To understand how this seemingly doomed effort is designed to work, one has to recognize the strategic game Abbas is playing. Abbas knows that time and public opinion are on his side. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can denounce the move, President Obama can end it, those opposed to it can call it foolish and self-defeating. But world reaction to Abbas’ request has been overwhelmingly positive and will become increasingly so with every move by Israel and the U.S. to block it.
The Palestinians are playing a long-term bargaining game, and any move toward the goal of statehood has to be considered a victory. Statehood will not come immediately, or when a vote is taken in the Security Council. What will happen is that support for it will slowly and surely increase among average citizens around the world. The extreme positions of Israel and the United States — their refusal to pursue real efforts to allow Palestinians to rule themselves and be free of military occupation — will be increasingly revealed, and tolerance for these positions, even among Israelis and Americans, will decline. Going to the Security Council knowing the bid will be publicly and persistently rejected, therefore, is an inspired strategy. Palestinians appear peaceful and reasonable. Israel and the United States do not.
In any bargaining game, the key to success is leverage. The Palestinian Authority has two broad sources of leverage. It can implicitly condone violence under the assumption that the more costly the conflict, the more likely Israel is to make concessions. Or it can pursue a nonviolent strategy mixing protest and diplomatic pressure.
For more than five years, the Palestinian Authority has pursued a disciplined nonviolent strategy against Israel. It has focused on building a state within the West Bank and rebuilding the infrastructure that was destroyed in the second intifada. The Palestinians have engaged in security cooperation with Israel to root out terrorists, and their security forces have been U.S. trained and supported. Certainly, the Palestinians have work to do. They still need to figure out their relationship to Hamas, as well as the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to tolerate violence. But Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are as good as they get. These West Bank Palestinians are the long-hoped-for partners that Israel needs to have a secure and lasting peace.
The nonviolent strategy, however has failed to generate sufficient leverage against Israel to motivate concessions. Many Israelis attribute the current lack of violence to the wall they constructed to fence off the West Bank, ignoring the equally important shift in the Palestinian Authority’s strategy. Believing that the security problem has been solved by concrete and barbed wire, most mainstream Israelis feel no real need to negotiate. With the center demobilized, Israeli hard-liners have a clear field. The result is that Israeli maximalist dreams about ruling indirectly over a quiescent Palestinian population — or even better, gradually easing them off to Jordan — go uncontested because of the lack of urgency.
These dreams, however, will never lead to peace. Many, if not most, Palestinians are willing to settle for less than the 1967 border, less than full sovereignty in security terms and less than a full right of return for refugees. However, they will not settle for nothing, and the rest of the Muslim world, newly awakened by their spring and summer revolts, will support them. This leaves the Palestinian leadership in a familiar quandary. Palestinians can continue to pursue nonviolence, but this has failed to bring any movement from the Israelis. They can return to violence, which is temporarily popular and puts pressure on Israel but is immoral and self-defeating in the long run.
What Palestinians need is a third strategy that is nonviolent yet generates significant pressure on Israel to negotiate. Going to the U.N. is designed to do just that.
By asking for recognition at the U.N. while scrupulously avoiding violence, the Palestinians are, finally, pursuing an intelligent foreign policy that has the prospect of isolating their adversary and bringing international opinion on their side. If recognition as a state is achieved, the whole international context of the struggle shifts and the Israeli occupation becomes starkly anomalous. If the bid fails, public opinion will shift in the Palestinians’ favor and greater pressure will be placed on the U.S. and Israel to seek resolution on statehood. This is why Israel is fuming and Washington is frantically trying to divert attention back to the stalled peace process. Absent this move by the Palestinians, the U.S. would not even be talking about the topic. Now it dominates the international agenda.
The U.S. response has been reactive and hapless, as it was in the Arab Spring. President Obama’s political position is relatively weak, and his mild effort to pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion was resoundingly defeated. In fact, Israel this week approved plans to built more than 1,000 housing units in East Jerusalem despite pleas from U.S. and European diplomats. The political strength of Israel’s supporters in the U.S. ensures that there will be no political daylight between U.S. policy and that of the sitting Israeli prime minister. This is especially true if Republicans turn support for Israel into a partisan issue.
If the U.S. were more concerned with peace in the Middle East (and in protecting its interests) than with domestic politics, it would support the Palestinian bid for statehood. If the Palestinians see that nonviolent strategies can produce real results, and the Israelis face reality that despite the lull in terrorist attacks there is a growing price to be paid for continued occupation, the increasingly untenable stalemate will be one step closer to resolution.
Barbara F. Walter is a professor of political science in the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego. Andrew Kydd is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.