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Palestinian Statehood? Security Implications for the Region

07 September 2011, 7:30 to 17:30

The Royal United Services Institute brought together experts from across the Middle East and beyond to discuss the impact of the Palestinian bid for statehood in September.

Videos and outlines of all the sessions can be found here.

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has marked the expected Palestinian bid for statehood on 20 September with a conference looking at the implications for the region. The event has brought together representatives from Israel and Palestine to make their cases to the international community. They were also been joined by prominent British and American experts on the Middle East Peace Process.

The main aim of the conference has been to address the strategic uncertainties that might result from the declaration of independence. Mindful of the polarised nature of the debate, and the deeply held views on both sides, RUSI sought to provide a neutral platform for discussion for all sides.

The RUSI conference, split into six sessions, allowed the representatives to speak on various points which surround the Palestinian statehood bid. These included the security concerns for both Palestinians and Israelis, the legal context of the Palestinian's approach as well as the wider impact on the region and relations with Europe and the US.

Diplomatic Strategy

Conference speaker Dr Nabil Shaath, the Fatah Commissioner of International Relations, saw the Palestinians shift in diplomatic strategy as a wider part of the 'Arab Spring' and a chance to seek more recognition. He added that the Palestinians were 'going to the UN, not to harass Israel but to protect ourselves'. 

Opposing this position, the former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador Dore Gold, said he was 'baffled' by the move. Addressing the RUSI audience, he said the Palestinian approach to the UN failed to give Israel the recognition it seeks, as a nation state for Jewish people.

The conference addressed the negative effects of a vote at the UN, especially on the Palestinian population. Elliot Abrams, the former Deputy National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, said the vote would raise 'hopes in a way that will not be met' and feed frustrations. He explained that if the Palestinians continued to wage 'lawfare' it would embitter Arab-Israeli relations further.

This uncertainty was echoed by the Vice President of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dr Jonathan Schanzer, he worried that this frustration could ferment into another violent uprising, despite Palestinian assurances of a non-violent approach.

Regional Security and Wider Relations

Many Israelis and Palestinians are concerned that the UN vote will have a serious impact on their own territory's security. Speaking to the assembled guests, Dr Eran Lerman, Israeli's Deputy National Security Council Advisor, said that 'peace requires a long-term presence in the Jordan Valley' as well as other 'key areas'.

Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Brigadier General (Res.) Yosef Kuperwasser, also saw the UN statehood bid as an attempt to avoid Israeli security needs.  But speaking passionately for the Palestinians, Dr. Shaath maintained that the Palestinians were not 'looking for a militarised empire' only a chance to prosper while maintaining peace with Israel.

One of the main obstacles for the Palestinian bid will be the veto power of the US, especially if a vote goes through the Security Council. It is likely that the Obama administration will use the power of veto; this was reaffirmed by the former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler while addressing the conference. He made it clear that even if the bid is vetoed the US would still be committed 'to the viability of a Palestinian state'.

Also discussing the effects of US influence, Mr. Abrams was clear that the relationship between the US and Palestinians was at its worst moment for seven or eight years.  He told RUSI that the Palestinians see Obama as unlikely to deliver, but equally the Israelis also see the US president as a problem which will likely see him 'disciplined' by Congress.

Fady Abusidu, the representative for the Fatah Foreign Relations Commission, blamed weak US - Israeli influence more on 'internal US dynamics' rather than a bad relationship between the two states.

Oslo and the Future

The Oslo agreements of 1993 were a subject for debate at the conference, especially its significance for 2011. On the Israeli side, Ambassador Gold argued that the change of status would be a 'material breach of the Oslo agreement' especially Article 31 which stipulates that no side shall take steps pending negotiations.

Contemplating the questions around Oslo, Dr. Shaath asked the question 'what has not already been violated?' He added that the Oslo agreements meant that the Palestinians 'had full jurisdiction' and 'should have had control of our territory' from 1993. However, Palestinian Territories Diplomatic Representative to the UK, Ambassador Manuel Hassasian, said Oslo was 'dead' and had been since the year 2000.

The RUSI conference also looked at the future of the peace process and possible solutions to the conflict. The former Palestinian negotiator, Khaled Elgindy, told the audience that the main aim of the Palestinians was to 'end [the] occupation' and 'resolve the refugee issue'.

Professor Dan Schueftan, the Director of the National Security Studies Centre at the University of Haifa, said that 'anyone who thinks there's a solution is confusing this with a crossword puzzle'. He added that he did not see any solutions, especially on the contentious subject of the 'right of return'. Other Israelis attending the conference, like Brigadier General Kupperwasser, said they wanted to see 'change and reach agreement' and finally 'end the occupation'.

The only way for a two state solution, according to Congressman Wexler, is to 'negotiate on the '67 lines'. He questioned the response to negotiations by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and asked the Israelis 'does the world look bright to you?'

The 'Palestinian Statehood? Security Implications for the Region' conference was an opportunity for all sides to debate each other's position in a neutral environment before proceeding to the UN. Many of the conference guests who spoke on Wednesday will be closely involved in negotiations when the Palestinians go to the UN on 20 September.

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