Commentary by Riccardo Dugulin – 25 August 2011
Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the PLO, called it a ‘crime against humanity’ when on August 14 Syrian troops started firing indiscriminately at the Al Ramel Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian town of Latakia. The prompt condemnation of these acts by the Arab League and the ongoing increase of sanctions against the Syrian crackdown appeared as a clear statement denouncing these events as a further criminal act in a five months long brutal repression by the Assad regime.
This episode should be considered in the light of the much-debated vote at the UN General Assembly in September concerning the creation of a Palestinian State based on the pre-1967 borders.
It appears that the proposed resolution is likely to pass with an overwhelming majority at the General Assembly and might only be blocked by a US veto at the Security Council.
What does such a scenario entail?
Aside from a tsunami of emotionally loaded comments and opinions, the issue of Palestinian statehood and the notion of theoretical peace with the State of Israel is, and will continue to constitute a political tango between competing regional and international powers. Since 1948, ‘Palestine’ and the ‘Palestinians’ have, in the vicious political theater that is the Middle East, been more a tool than an actual goal.
The September 2011 act will only represent a further step in hazardously exploiting a more than fragile situation while possibly aggravating the conditions of Palestinian people. If Palestine is a uniting cause for Arabs and Muslims worldwide, the Palestinians, as a people, are far less part of the equation.
From 1948 onward, certain wariness has been verified around the Middle East concerning the place of Palestinians refugees. With no exceptions, Palestinians are treated as second-class individuals, not granted the same rights as others asylum seekers or refugees (to maintain the politicized ‘right of return’) and suffer the effects of disastrous regional policies.
This situation requires a realist critique to the possibility of a Palestinian State being created on the lines of the pre-1967. For this, three basic questions should be answered.
Can a Palestinian State be viable?
The most pressing issue concerns the immediate future of a Palestinian State. Will it have enough capital or enough donors to operate with a minimum budget covering the costs of governmental spending and public structures? The first doubts about the UN diplomatic endeavor are apparent. In fact, the general tendency to disregard the actual needs Palestine would face come primarily from other Arab countries. As of August 2011, only $331 millions of the $971 millions pledged as donations have been delivered to the PA (the UAE, Oman and Algeria are the only states respecting their pledges). In addition, Israel is likely to suspend its tax transfer (almost 65% of the PA annual budget) to the PA if the latter decides to pursue a unilateral bid at the UN. The US Congress and the EU are also contemplating cutting their aid to a Palestinian State following the National Unity agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
In the wake of statehood, Palestinian independence and sovereignty appears to be, in the short term, negatively linked to the lack of financial and budgetary autonomy.
A difficult path to Palestinian sovereignty
As help from the conventional donors may prove to be insufficient, the idea of a Palestinian State is a likely target for actors trying to reorganize the regional balance.
As it has been verified in the last decade, Iran is longing to position itself as a strong player in the evolving Middle East. Through its economic aid, social work and paramilitary assistance, it has developed a patronage network expanding from Southern Lebanon to the South Eastern regions of Iraq, and Eastern Afghanistan. Palestine is likely to become a fertile terrain for Iran’s aim to play a bigger role in the Near East through proselytism, investments and weapons transfers.
If in the short term such a scenario is not negative for the Palestinians, one should not underestimate the idea that the Iranian government is set for a Great Game in the Arab Middle East and Central Asia. Preparing for an overall draw down of the US presence in the region, Iranian policies appear to be dictated by pragmatic power plays that overshadow humanitarian tendencies. Palestinians risk, after September 2011, to see their ambitions of independence and sovereignty frustrated yet another time.
Will a Palestinian State constitute a threat to others (and to itself)?
Here, the issue of State versus people is at its highest. After almost 63 years of conflict, the underlying leitmotiv for the creation of a Palestinian State lies in the possible increase of its peoples’ safety and the overall stability of the region. Nevertheless, commentators are skeptical regarding a possible enhancement of peace and security as a direct result of the UN vote. Considering the inclusion of Hamas as a major actor in the national unity government, it becomes necessary to reflect on the movement’s polarized and immutable position regarding Palestinian relations with the State of Israel and its massive acquisition of upgraded weaponry. Furthermore, Hamas is taking a singular stance toward other Arab countries. On August 17, it suppressed an anti-Assad demonstration in the Gaza strip while earlier in the same month, Hamas refused to provide the Egyptian government with information regarding an Islamist attack in the Sinai. One might also think back at the quasi-civil war that parted the Palestinian political scene in 2007 to imagine possible tensions erupting when questions of power sharing will rise after the creation of a Palestinian State.
Overall, these questions highlight a general tendency which can be summarized by the following: should a Palestinian State see the day in a near future, it might not be the optimal choice for an increase in life standards of Palestinian people. In fact, budgetary and financial issues coupled with the ever-present regional power render the daily life of Palestinians a minor part of a wider equation.
The current debate is certainly based on speculations as, regarding a possible UN bid, nothing for the moment is set in stone; and the road to a comprehensive peace through multilateral negotiations appears to have come to a long term stalemate. Yet the international community, Arab countries and Palestinian political entities may be about to embark on a path which for once more in the region’s history is set to privilege political gains over the safety of societies and the well being of individuals.
The question is no longer if Palestine should exist as a sovereign state living side by side with Israel. The issue is set by the lack of conditions the PA and the UN appear to examine such a project with. A positive resolution at the GA would propose the creation of special committees and working groups, made up by the majority of interested actors and international partners in order to work for a sustainable result. Financial stability, internal political agreement and a roadmap for peace with Israel are to be addressed by the UN and the PA before the formal creation of Palestine, for the sake of its people. In this optic, an action plan, with precise rights and duties for all concerned parties, similar to the one proposed by the EU to the Eastern European candidates prior to their full membership, could be an interesting option.
The September vote should then not be considered as a single political statement but as a comprehensive first step toward regional stability.
Riccardo Dugulin is a Master Student at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) specialized in International Security. He is currently working as an intern at International SOS (Paris) and a non-resident intern at the Hudson Institute (Washington DC).