The Palestinian-Israeli relations may have come to a new stage – with Palestine’s recognition as an observer state in the United Nations and more recently, this week’s Israeli elections – though the long-term implications of these events are unclear, experts said during a panel discussion at the UCLA School of Law held Thursday.
Several professors from the law school, the Burkle Center of International Relations and the UCLA Center of Middle East Development spoke at the panel, which primarily focused on the question of Palestinian statehood.
In November, the general assembly of the United Nations voted to change the status of Palestine from “non-member observer entity,” a term reflecting a group with some autonomy but without full sovereignty, to “non-member observer state,” a title reflecting a recognition of statehood.
Kal Raustiala, director of the Burkle Center of International Relations, said its new status is not unprecedented. Other places granted “non-member observer state” status in the past include Switzerland, which eventually formally joined, and the Vatican, which remains one, Raustiala said.
The “state” of Palestine currently encompasses two discontinuous territories: the Gaza Strip, a small coastal section on the border of Israel and Egypt run by the Palestinian political organization Hamas; and the West Bank, the western bank of the Dead Sea, controlled by the Palestinian Fatah party, Raustiala said.
The most popular, contemporary idea in the international community is that of a two-state solution, whereby both Israel and Palestine exist as separate sovereign nations, the experts said at the panel discussion.
James Gelvin, a professor of history who specializes in Near Eastern studies, said the change indicated a recognition of Palestinian statehood by the international community, with notable exceptions.
The United States, which has traditionally rejected any Palestinian bid for statehood without negotiation with Israel, was among the nine countries that voted against the proposal to change Palestine’s status.
Many of the “no” votes came from nations with no stake in the matter, such as Micronesia, which hoped to gain American favor by doing so, Asli Bali, a law professor, said at the forum.
The vote heralded a new age of Palestinian “lawfare,” where the Palestinian Authority exercises legal and diplomatic channels that are different than its former methods of violent resistance and warfare, to seek autonomous statehood, she said.
Steven Spiegel, director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA, said at the forum that Palestine may have gone directly to the United Nations for statehood instead of negotiating with Israeli authorities because of a perceived shift in Israeli politics in recent years.
“Many people thought Israel had gone right and gone right permanently,” he said.
Spiegel said this line of reasoning may even have prompted Palestine to think that no deal was possible with an Israel that was politically trending to the right, which has in the past been unable to reach negotiations with Palestinian authorities.
But current trends suggest that the Israeli political right no longer holds the monopoly it once did.
After Tuesday’s elections, Israel’s current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to take on his third term. The election results also point to large and unexpected gains by moderate and liberal parties than in the past, according to Reuters.
Netanyahu will now need to form a coalition that includes moderate parties to stay in control, which would shift the government’s politics more to the center, Spiegel said at the forum.
The panelists said Israelis may have voted for moderate and liberal parties because they are more willing to make concessions to the Palestinian authorities than before and voted for moderate or liberal parties in line with those opinions.
But the top three parties in the elections had differing views on Palestinian statehood, which may indicate that Israelis are not interested in the question of Palestinian statement and instead favor domestic issues like the economy, Gelvin said.
Still, the panelists said it is hard to tell how the relationship between Israel and Palestine will fare in the long run, given the Israeli elections and Palestine’s renewed push for statehood through more diplomatic means.
Palestine and Israel came the closest to an agreement in 1993, Gelvin said.
Peace talks later stalled and then collapsed in 2000, after which the Israelis simply walked away from the negotiating table, never again to return for serious negotiations, despite American and international pressure to do so, he said.
“The international community has no power to bring Israel to the bargaining table,” Gelvin said.
Domestic politics may have a chance this time, Spiegel said at the forum. Increasingly, the Israeli public has shown opposition toward new settlement construction, a hot-button issue with Palestine, as it translates to higher taxes and higher costs of living, he said.
“(The recent Israeli) election shows Israeli-Palestine relations don’t have to be so negative,” he said.
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