This week, almost twenty years to the day after the signing of the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza (commonly known as Oslo Two) on September 28, 1995, the Palestinian leader who signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles two years earlier, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), is set to address the United Nations General Assembly in what is already being described as a game-changing speech. Speculations as to its content are rampant in diplomatic circles and in the press both in the region and in capitals throughout the world. And although eyes are currently riveted on events in and around Syria, it is already clear that the unacknowledged but nevertheless extraordinarily robust status quo that has governed Israeli-Palestinian relations since the effective collapse of the Oslo process fifteen years ago is about to undergo a seismic shift.
The distress of the Palestinian Authority and its leader has been obvious for quite some time. For years, Abu-Mazen has attempted, unsuccessfully, to achieve Palestinian independence by diplomatic means. During his tenure, the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been formalized — and with it the rivalry between the Hamas and the PLO. In recent months, the rift between the PA and its constituents has reached a nadir, with only 16 percent expressing support for the current government. (In Gaza, Hamas has been faced with demonstrations by a frustrated population unable to cope with infrastructure failure and ongoing scarcities). Despite the attainment of non-member state status at the United Nations, this erosion of legitimacy has been coupled with growing international disinterest following the collapse of the talks brokered by John Kerry in April 2014.
Since then, the situation on the ground has deteriorated. During the last year, frustration has focused primarily — but by no means exclusively — on Jerusalem. Friction surrounding the Temple Mount has reached a new peak. Spontaneous acts of defiance against Israeli overrule have exacted a price in Israeli lives and been met by growing Israeli repression. The strong-arm tactics recently instituted by the Netanyahu government (including the announcement last week of harsh minimum sentences for stone-throwers and the reduction of restrictions on the use of firearms against Palestinians) have only exacerbated the situation.
Abu-Mazen has been signaling for some time that, like so many Palestinians, he has given up hope on reaching a negotiated settlement on a bilateral basis. He has also made it clear that at the age of eighty-one he wishes to be relieved of the mantle of leadership. His resignation from his positions at the helm of the Fatah and the PLO this past summer is but a prelude to what promises to be a much deeper change in the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new contours, however, are still unclear.
Some conjectures about future directions are currently being aired: the most obvious is the cessation of security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Although this collaboration has contributed to the relative quiet that has prevailed in recent years, it has not improved the lot of most Palestinians. Its abandonment may worsen their situation even more. A second possibility — one with more far-reaching consequences — involves the official renunciation of the Oslo accords and with it the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority. Such a move would shift the burden of overseeing everyday life in the West Bank back to Israel. But it, too, would hardly advance the Palestinian goal of self-determination or hasten the termination of forty-eight years of Israeli occupation.
Certain pundits are anticipating a formal declaration of independence (although for all intents and purposes Palestine possesses many of the trappings of a sovereign entity without possessing de facto control over its territory). This will enable the Palestinians to claim that they are a state under occupation and to demand international protection. Such a step alone, however, would not necessarily compel any international action.
A variant of this scenario is more intriguing. It is not inconceivable that Mahmoud Abbas may ask — in his last appearance before the United Nations — for the assumption of a UN trusteeship over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This idea was bandied about in the 1980s, before the Oslo talks, and is being revived today in light of the internationalization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Two notable precedents exist for such a move. The first is the case of South-West Africa (present-day Namibia). In the late 1960s the United Nations abrogated the South African mandate over the territory and in 1973 it recognized SWAPO (The South West Africa People’s Organization) as the official representative of the Namibian people. In 1978 the Security Council took responsibility for overseeing the transition of Namibia to independence from South Africa — completed in 1990 under the auspices of the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). The second example is that of Timor-Leste (East Timor), formerly a Portuguese colony annexed by Indonesia in 1976 following the withdrawal of the colonial power a year earlier. In 1999 the United Nations assumed full responsibility for East Timor, establishing the UN Transition Administration for East Timor (UNTAET), which oversaw the move to independence in 2002. In both instances — which, admittedly, differ in several respects from the Palestinian situation — the international community did directly intervene to terminate foreign control over neighboring areas and guarantee the emergence of independent states in their stead.
All of these options can be set in motion by the Palestinian leadership, which already has made substantial overtures to European countries. France is still considering a Security Council resolution to expedite negotiations. Together with other European countries committed to labeling settlement products, it is exploring the possibility of convening an international conference to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative. All these measures are being weighed without active Israeli involvement.
Indeed, Israeli officialdom, to date, has scoffed at the prospect of any substantive change in the nature of the current situation, dismissing Palestinian moves as “a charade” of “mere brinkmanship”. They might be well-advised to begin to take matters more seriously. By the end of this week, Israel — along with the rest of the world — may in all likelihood be facing a new reality. Its government cannot continue to act as if it were a mere bystander without any direct connection to unfolding events. This time, however, Israel cannot afford to find itself ill-prepared. If there ever was a time to shift gears and proactively seek new ways to end the conflict, it is now. With or without Israeli cooperation, the status quo is about to change dramatically.