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Angling For Crisis – The Real Value of Going to the UN

September 18, 2011

Update: I recommend reading the comments that follow this post. They offer complimentary and alternative perspectives that should be considered.

As the meeting of the UN General Assembly and Palestine’s bid for UN recognition approaches, the governments of Israel, Europe, the United States, and the Arab world, and their respective journalists, pundits, and commentators have offered widely varied analysis. Four basic theses emerge: 1. That the US and Europe should do everything they can to get the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) off this track, perhaps by demanding that Israel become more flexible; 2. That the US is strategically and morally obligated to support the Palestinians; 3. That the Palestinian Authority’s scheme is a fools errand that will accomplish nothing for the Palestinians. And 4. That the reckless and impatient Palestinians are trying to find a way to avoid dealing directly with Israel.

Every one of these positions fails to illustrate the true value of the Palestinian strategy: the creation of a much-need diplomatic crisis.

In his thorough and authoritative text on the diplomatic history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, William Qaundt of the Brookings Institute demonstrates that American policy direction is largely fixed, and often passive, until a crisis erupts and forces policy makers to change tack. In the event of a crisis:

Previous policies may well be exposed as flawed or bankrupt. Reality no longer accords with previous expectations. In such a situation a new structure of perceptions is likely to emerge…Between crisis, as is noted, it is difficult to bring about changes in policies that were forged in crisis and have the stamp of presidential approval. (pages 19-20)

In the past, these crises have almost always been violent. Each of Israel’s five wars with its Arab neighbors led to significant shifts in American policy in reaction to the new regional paradigm. The First Intifada lead to the Oslo Process, and the Second Intifada (as well as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) caused the American government to focus less on facilitating forward movement on the peace process and more on trying to maintain Israel’s day-to-day security.

Today’s American policy is constrained by the paradigm created early in the last decade: any move that makes the Israeli government uncomfortable is likely to expose Israeli civilians to the terror of bus and cafe bombings. Putting pressure on to Israel refrain from colonizing Palestinian land, for example, is perceived as disregard for Israeli life. This leaves US leadership with little political freedom to take effective action, especially with a highly partisan domestic political climate.

If history informs the present, then a variable crisis might be exactly what is needed to break the deadlock. The UN bid may be an effective way to spark such a crisis. The PLO will present its initiative as the logical outgrowth of a crippled and fading peace process. Simply put, the US and Israel have, for almost twenty years, promised Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war in exchange for an end to hostilities. This formula is now widely accepted by the international community, and a bold Palestinian action to affirm it will be seen by many countries as natural and justified. Such an action also contributes to Palestine’s image as a functioning state with the sophistication to use the tools of international diplomacy instead of militancy.

The various proceedings in the UN in late September only initiate the crisis while a range of local and international options offer to deepen it. Both success and disappointment at the UN will almost assuredly spark demonstrations and other popular actions in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority, if unsatisfied with the decisions of key UN members, could choose or be forced to dissolve or dramatically restructure the Palestinian Authority, causing Israel to have to resume full occupation of the territory. The US Congress’s threats to cut aid to the PA contributes to the likelihood of this outcome. Escalating tensions between Israel and Egypt, a newly emboldened Turkey, and possibly even Jordan would likely create massive pressure on the United States to get actively involved.

Israeli behavior in the face of a rapidly deteriorating political situation could serve to shift global public opinion in Palestine’s favor. The Netanyahu government’s intransigence and retaliatory measures, as well as increasingly frequent and bold “price tag” attacks by Israeli extremists would test the limits of Israel’s support from Western populations and governments. This would be especially true if Palestinians are able to resist the temptation to resort to violence.

If such a scenario were to manifest, it may demand a rapid restructuring of American policy. “Previous policies” as Quandt says, “may well be exposed as flawed or bankrupt. Reality no longer accords with previous expectations…A new structure of perceptions is likely to emerge.” American unwillingness to apply significant pressure to Israel may no longer be an option.

It is critical that Palestinians manage the crisis so that any American policy reshapes itself in their interest. A return to violence will most likely result in American and European policy shifts towards Israel, which would leave Palestinians with another desperate decade. The goal must be to force a rapid deterioration of the status quo without ever threatening loss of life, and to do so with a moral or political mandate. Palestinians must then show themselves to be the primary actor by demonstrating control of the crisis. Their ability to influence other regional actors, especially Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan, is especially important.  The more successfully the Palestinians can do this, the more a new American policy will have to account for their interests.

Learn the basics about Palestine’s Date with the UN

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2011 10:47 am

    Hey Jake,

    Competent post and well-explained. But Quandt published in 2001, and I think you now need to adjust your optimism for the makeup of the US Congress, a body which has shifted further to the right than the Knesset, and the proven weakness of the Obama administration. I think you’re spot on about the general timeline: once shit hits the fan, American diplomats generally switch to “shit-hits-the-fan” mode and scramble to readjust. But you know Israel is always the special case. In an election year, and based on past experience, I don’t think Obama will be making any special considerations for Palestinian nonviolence–in fact I think it’s going to be another nauseating year of Israeli flag pins, “shared values” speeches, and heavy kowtowing. Plus, if the Congress votes to end PA funding (to some horror in Israel), will Obama have the backbone to veto?

    Usually I’m one for unfailing optimism. But consider the Tea Party, the 27 standing ovations for Netanyahu and CODEPINK’s recent field trip to Congress (, and most of all the stuttering responses to Cairo and Tunisia. The American diplomatic machine is not working at full speed.



    • September 18, 2011 11:00 am

      Brendan, Thanks for your comments. I think you are right that the situation in congress and the upcoming presidential elections make the White House even less capable of reacting. My hope is that the political risks of allowing the crisis to get out of control will outweigh the short-term risks of looking too critical of Israel. I also hope that the Palestinians are able to manage the situation in a way that allows them to capitalize on what appear to be shifting trends in American public opinion

      Also, Quandt published a revised edition of The Peace Process in 2006. That is the version I read.

  2. September 18, 2011 11:10 am

    Gotcha, I was going off the Amazon link. Anyway, I share your hopes but asking American politicians to sacrifice short-term political gains for long-term peace and justice has been a losing horse since the two-party system congealed back in 1427 BC.

  3. Danya M. permalink
    September 18, 2011 11:22 am

    This is a very well written piece Jake. Brenden has a good point though. Right now, it seems like the American government is supporting Israel with almost everything. There seems to be no back bone in the Obama administration, as for past administrations, and like Breden said the Congress is as far right as the Israeli Knesset. Even when you look on how the FBI is prosecuting solidarity activists, it’s becoming ridiculous.

    Although, I do have optimism for the future, right now i’m just a little cynical. I’m hoping it will eventually change, but right now I don’t really see any evidence that it will anytime soon.

    Nonetheless, great article Jake!

    • September 18, 2011 11:49 am

      The question here is really about how critical the crisis has to be for it to liquidate the current American policy. I think the answer hinges on the behavior of Egypt, Jordan, and (especially) Turkey. If Israel’s intransigence appears to be leading to a regional war between four US allies, then the President will be under massive pressure to respond. Egypt and Jordan’s agreements with Israel are the foundation of every policy in the region, and Turkey is home to one of the most important supply bases for the effort in Iraq. Saudi has also indicated that it might be willing to make some trouble. Let the Obama administration worry about all that in an election year.

      And remember, all of those factors are also likely to soften Israel as well.

  4. September 18, 2011 11:07 pm

    I really liked the idea upon which you based your article. Nevertheless, I have a few points to make:

    1. The first Intifada never lead to Oslo process but rather it was an obstacle in its path. Arafat saw the first intifada as a big threat to his position and status quo among the Palestinians because a new and strong leadership was emerging from within the Palestinian territories as a result of the First Intifada. Therefore, Arafat worked on destroying the First Intifada by initiating and signing on the Oslo accord. (Had the First Intifada continues, the Palestinian would have been in a much better position on every level)

    2. The American Administration policy towards Israel has always been in Israel’s favor. Just like what Quandt says, creating a crisis to get out of another one and serve your political goals, also, taking advantage of a crisis (not necessarily created by the beneficiary) will also lead to the same results. The American Administration might not have perpetrated the Sept 11th attacks but it definitely worked for its favor in creating a new slogan in the world “War against terror” and used that to justify its wars and actions towards the countries it chose to occupy. Not only that, but the AA used the Sept 11th attacks to strengthen its ties with Israel and justified any actions taking by Israel towards the Palestinians to be part of the “war on terror” campaign.

    3. US and Israel never promised a withdrawal from the 1967 territories. The US and Israel might have entertained the idea of Israel withdrawing from the 1967 territories under countless conditions the Palestinian must fulfill first, but they never gave a crystal clear promise. US has helped in creating a very strong Israel to a point where the US, now, cannot dictate Israel what to do and what not to do, even if it wanted to. Also, the zionist lobby has manifested itself deeply inside the american administration to a point where any decision made by the President towards Israel or Palestine must be approved by the Zionist Lobby. Moreover, Israel and US play a strategy game called “postponing” what this does is giving more time for Israel to create facts on ground so that when the due date comes, it will be hard to reverse those facts even if the US didn’t like them!
    As for my take on the Palestine’s bid for UN recognition, I’m totally against for the following reasons:

    1. Asking for recognition on 1967 borders will automatically, legitimize Israel’s occupation of the 1948 territories. Not being able to liberate your country at this point does not mean it has seized to be occupied.

    2. It will automatically drop the “right of return” and will change the status of the refugees from “refugees” to “Palestinians in the diaspora”. Who gave the right for the PA to decide for 6 Million refugees!?

    3. It will take the “Palestine cause” out of the context it was originally based upon. (i.e. the Palestine cause is based on complete liberation of historic Palestine, no one has the right to change that, therefore asking for recognition on the 1967 borders only, will de-legitimize this cause and any action taken inside the 1948 occupied territories will be considered as one country launching attacks against another country and not people under occupation resisting their occupier)

    4. The PA was never elected by the Palestinians and therefore does not represent them and does not have the right to speak or do actions on their behalf.

    5. Gaining a title, if it does not get vetoed against, will not make you gain anything on ground. The situation on ground will stay exactly the same. The checkpoints and military outposts will stay, israeli colonies will stay, settlers attacks will keep on going. Israel’s full control on the West Bank will stay! No sovereignty, No control, No army, No power, what kind of state is that!?
    6. The UN back in 1947 gave the Palestinians a lot more than that (56%), why are we asking for less now (22% only). In 1947, when there was a resolution at the UN to divide Palestine 46% for the Israeli’s and 56% for the Palestinians, the general assembly was against the passing of this resolution and the world zionist organization were also against that. But how did the UN pass such a resolution. Here is the answer: the world zionist organization had a lot of influence in the world and figured they could say yes to this resolution and later change the facts on the battlefield and that what happened. The WZO figured the UN was only 3 votes short to pass the resolution. So, the WZO threatened and/or bribed the presidents of the three countries to change their votes into a YES. Two of those countries were in South America as far as I remember and one in europe. (Refer to the book “Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews” by Allen Hart, first or second volume)

    Eventually, I would like to say that until one knows how their enemy thinks, they will not be able to defeat it. If one does not think the same way their enemy thinks, they will not be able to defeat it. Our enemy furthered its influence in the world by creating strategical relationships with the countries that shared the same interests and didn’t really care how it implemented its policies to maintain this relationship, even if that meant complete disregard to international laws, human rights, UN resolutions, ….etc. Our enemy did all that to serve an unjust cause and it succeeded. Until we start thinking the same as our enemy, we will not gain a nickel.

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