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What Do Palestinians Think of the U.N. Bid?

Many Support It but There Are Mixed Opinions

SOURCE: AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill

A girl waves a Palestinian flag during a rally in support of the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition in the United Nations in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 21, 2011.

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So what do Palestinians themselves think about their leadership’s strategy to achieve international recognition at the United Nations later this week?

According to recent polling, Palestinians’ support for the U.N. bid is significant but by no means overwhelming. A joint Israeli-Palestinian poll from June 2011 found that 65 percent of Palestinians believe they should go to the United Nations to seek recognition of their state, while 76 percent believe the United States will use its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block Palestinian membership. Fifty-seven percent believe that the Palestinians will get at least two-thirds support of U.N. member states.

Interestingly, a poll this month by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 52.7 percent of Palestinians support going to the United Nations, 59.3 percent prefer to resume negotiations with Israel. This indicates that many Palestinians do not view pursuing recognition at the United Nations and continuing the peace process with Israelis as mutually exclusive.

In a visit to the West Bank in August, I spoke to a number of Palestinian officials and activists about their perceptions of the Palestinians’ U.N. bid. While they supported the bid, the officials made clear that they saw the U.N. effort as complementary to peace negotiations, not a substitute for them.

Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian Authority Government Media Center (the press office of the Palestinian Authority), was clear about the reasoning behind the U.N. effort. “The Palestinian leadership cannot sustain itself in power without some sort of political progress,” said Khatib, and the U.N. bid was in part an effort to achieve some measure of progress that the U.S.-managed peace process has not been able to deliver.

Khatib outlined three goals of the U.N. effort: 1) to engage the international community effectively and productively; 2) to obtain clear terms of reference for negotiations with Israel; and 3) to enhance international recognition of Palestinian rights.

One Palestinian Liberation Organization official I spoke with appreciated President Barack Obama’s attempt to lay out terms of reference for negotiations in his May 19 speech on the Middle East. But the official quickly noted that the rapturous reception with which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on May 24 to Congress was received (“Have you ever seen such a thing?”) was evidence of the severe constraints on President Obama’s ability to make policy. This, too, served as an impetus for the Palestinians’ U.N. bid, the official said.

“Twenty years of stalled negotiations have been counterproductive,” the official continued. “Israel has had time to act unilaterally,” by building settlements and the separation barrier in the West Bank. The official characterized the U.N. bid as “a corrective move to repair flaws in the current process.”

But some younger Palestinian activists rejected the Palestinian U.N. effort, seeing it as a transparent attempt by an illegitimate government to salvage its own credibility, and a step that would do nothing to end the occupation.

“I don’t want a PA representing me, that hasn’t held elections since 2006, trying to get a state at the U.N.,” said one. “We want a state for all its people. It’s time to get people out of thinking about land and thinking about rights. I want my rights.”

An older activist pushed back on the anti-PA sentiment. “The Palestinians are all sailing on the same ship,” he said in response to his young colleagues. “Sometimes I don’t like what the P.A. is doing, but that doesn’t mean they’re our enemy. Our enemy is Israel.”

The improvement in Palestinian security, carried out under the auspices of the United States Security Coordinator, or USSC—created in 2005 to reform the Palestinian security services—has often been hailed as evidence of the Palestinians’ readiness for statehood under the direction of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But an official familiar with the program said that a majority of the recruits he works with don’t think the state they are ostensibly training to serve will ever come into being.

That sense of resignation echoed a conversation I had with a Palestinian driver on the hour-long ride from Ramallah to Tel Aviv last year. He commended Prime Minister Fayyad for his work on improving security and increasing economic growth and opportunity, but he did not believe it would lead anywhere.

“It’s good that there’s less violence now,” he said, “but the occupation is still here.” I asked him if he thought the occupation would ever end, and in response he simply motioned out the car window, toward the ever-growing Israeli settlement of Modi’in Ilit.

Jawad Siyam, an activist in the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, where Palestinians live under constant threat of eviction by Israeli settlers, said he wasn’t paying attention to the U.N. bid until he noticed how nervous it made Israelis.

“We didn’t care at all about it,” he said, “but the Israelis’ fear made us care.” Siyam said he saw the United Nations as an appropriate venue for the Palestinians to address the conflict. “The world created this problem” by dividing Palestine, Siyam said, “so it’s the world’s responsibility to fix it.”

Still, Jawad saw little cause for optimism. “I don’t see any kind of solution coming,” he said, either at the United Nations or elsewhere. “We’re just trying not to lose any kind of hope.”

President Obama has repeatedly declared the status quo in Israel-Palestine to be “unsustainable.” While all of those I spoke to in the West Bank agreed that the situation is continually declining and degrading under the constant pressure of occupation and settlement, there was little optimism among them about the near-term prospects of changing this trajectory. Despite the president’s declarations, they see a status quo that continues to be sustained with U.S. support.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at American Progress.

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