This week, the Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority announced a full-bore diplomatic effort to gain UN membership for a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with its capital in Jerusalem. President Mahmud Abbas is touring Europe and Turkey. Emissaries will be traveling to China, India and other rising powers. Saeb Erekat, Abbas’s indefatigable chief negotiator, called the campaign for statehood “massive.”
Many observers, including my own Palestinian friends in and around Jerusalem, express doubts about this campaign—not out of fear of jeopardizing the flow of American aid, the fear Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad openly voices—but rather because they cannot see the point of taking on so much to elicit what will likely prove an empty gesture. Israel, they say, will still control Areas B and C, or nearly 70 percent of what the world recognizes as Palestinian land, assuming the green line as the basis for a border. The settlements will not stop; calling the hemmed-in Palestinian Authority a “state” does not change any facts on the ground. (You might as well call it the Palestinian “empire,” one friend quipped grimly.) Besides, UN membership depends on a resolution of the Security Council, and the Obama administration seems likely to veto this, at least until after the US presidential election. What can possibly be gained from Abbas’s effort, other than inflated expectations which, when deflated, could turn an already tense situation more generally violent?
It is hard not to share the skepticism, especially a week after the Knesset passed the Netanyahu government’s most provocative law, in effect, erasing the border between Israel and “Judea and Samaria,” criminalizing Israelis who advocate for economic boycotts, including even boycott of settlements. And yet, Israeli commentators—especially those in the business and army intelligence élite—seem far more exercised about “September” (the nick-name they’ve given Abbas’s push for statehood in the UN) than you’d expect given so much Palestinian skepticism and shows of force by pro-settler politicians.
Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan is warning that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s effort to thwart Palestinian statehood will backfire. Yaacov Perry, the former CEO of cell phone giant Cellcom, along with business mogul Idan Ofer and others, have offered a peace plan much like the one then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas in 2008. One can almost detect (forgive me) a paradigm shift among Israelis who constitute the “center”: people not cloistered in settlements or Jerusalem houses of religious study; young people who perhaps cannot imagine Israel without the settlement of Ariel, but also cannot imagine European basketball without Maccabi Tel Aviv; people who can be the difference between a 65-seat majority for the parties of Greater Israel or a 65-seat majority for the parties of Global Israel.
“September” means a kind of layered anxiety, the fear of a global deadline. And underlying the fear are implicit assumptions:
The Palestinian middle class is coming into its own. After 1967, ordinary Israelis vaguely assumed that Israeli business and banking would dominate in the territories, while Arabs—if they could be induced to abandon insurgency—would be farmers, merchants, laborers, perhaps even quaint figures on the landscape where tour buses stopped. For the past decade, it has become clear to their Israeli counterparts that Palestinian entrepreneurs, professionals, and bankers expect, and deserve, a different fate. They have not left for Jordan and the Gulf, but are organizing a mini-state in Ramallah, one far more attractive to ordinary Palestinians than Hamas’s mini-mini-state in Gaza. The spine of this state is not simply Fayyad’s American-trained police, which provides the rule of law (while offending Palestinian liberals with its excesses). It is an economy that shows promise, even if it still relies heavily on international donors.
The Palestinian economy, while growing, is in danger. Israeli élites are finally seeing that managing the territories for the sake of the settlers thwarts what Palestinian élites are trying to develop in the womb of the Occupation. Netanyahu’s offer of “economic peace” is just a smokescreen. Palestinian commerce is stifled by barriers to internal movement, lack of access to Jerusalem, global supply-chains constantly disrupted for so-called security reasons, and stringent limits on entry and exit of Palestinian managers, scholars, and investors. The World Bank reports: “Ultimately, sustainable economic growth...will not rebound significantly while Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets remain in place…”
Thwarted development will bring resistance. Palestinians, in this context, will struggle for political independence not just to oppose Zionism, or throw-off occupation forces, but out of a positive need to win control of immigration and keep their economic development going, indeed, much like Zionist pioneers struggled against Britain in the 1940s. Nor do Israelis in the center see settlers as culture heroes they way they did in the 1970s. Rather, they admire globalist Israeli entrepreneurs like Iscar’s Step Wertheimer. Conspicuous Palestinian entrepreneurs—Munib Al Masri springs to mind—speak their language.
Backed by world opinion, Palestinian action will resemble the Arab Spring. Israelis are used to fighting violent insurgency and appealing to world opinion. What if there is no violence and no sympathy? An acquaintance of mine attended a dinner with Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently, who was asked what he would do if tens of thousands of non-violent Palestinian demonstrators began marching toward Jerusalem. Barak responded—sincerely, my friend tells me—that he really didn’t know. Israelis do know the Arab Spring has produced a government in Egypt that cannot bolt down popular opinion as in the past. No sane Israeli thinks the actions of soldiers on the Golan last June, opening fire on Palestinian demonstrators approaching their lines, would be morally or politically acceptable, not even in Israel; another operation like Cast Lead, Israel’s incursion into Gaza, seems almost unimaginable, particularly since Hamas has implicitly allowed Abbas to lead into September.
Israel’s own economy is at stake. A vote in the UN General Assembly cannot recognize Palestine or offer it membership. But it can become the occasion for member states to recognize Palestine—and as many as 130, by current count, will do so. This matters because, economically, countries other than the US matter. The Israeli business world is especially tied to Europe. The government’s level of debt to GDP is comparatively high. To continue growing fast—as it must to pay for defense, and outpace its looming social tensions—Israel’s economy relies on technology companies that build relationships with—that is, build solutions, process technologies, and components for—other global businesses, particularly European corporations.
So “September” means a change in the rules: influential Israelis know it, ordinary Israelis finally sense it. For years, Palestine seemed an internal problem; the IDF handled insurgents, Mubarak handled the region, and Washington handled the world. No more. When many countries in the Euro zone, Latin America, and the Far East recognize Palestine and the 1967 border, many will claim that Israel is in breach of international law. The danger will not simply be, say, a Norwegian mayor bringing charges against some traveling IDF officer in the International Criminal Court. It will be a German supervisory board telling the chairman of a German company that working with an Israeli supplier is not worth the hassle. Any Israeli investor will tell you that venture capital for start-ups is already much harder to come by than it was a couple of years ago.
Ironically, the same global forces that have made Israel an economic success make its occupation of Palestine more fraught. It has made an independent Palestine plausible, and interdependence with Israel attractive. For Israel’s part, it can’t have an economy like Singapore and a nationalities crisis like Serbia. Israelis are feeling the danger of September—of the changing rules—even if Palestinians are not so sure.
What was the Knesset’s action against advocates of boycott last week if not a tribute to a rising, general fear of the economic isolation that Palestinian diplomacy can help bring about? The point is, this fear is justified.