Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

From Peace Process to State Process


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will apparently apply for membership of the United Nations on September 23, 2011 for a separate Palestinian state. The application for full membership initially goes to the Security Council, but there the United States will probably veto it.

In all probability, a new application will then go to the UN General Assembly, where the Palestinians will ask to be able to obtain a so-called state observer state – “non-member observer state”. That is the status of the Vatican City State today. It is not the same as full membership, but it will allow the Palestinian state to participate and become a member of several UN agencies, and it will mean that everyone who votes for the resolution recognizes the Palestinian state. This process of membership has caused Israel and the United States to rage. They claim this undermines the peace process and therefore threatens economic sanctions.

  • What peace process is being undermined?
  • How did the parties end up in this situation?
  • What arguments do the Palestinians use to advance their case?
  • How does the outside world react to a Palestinian application?

2: The history of the conflict

Today’s conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has its roots back to the beginning of the 20th century. Two nascent nationalisms, Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, both considered the same geographical area – Palestine – as their homeland. Tensions between them began as Jewish immigration increased explosively as a result of growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

In 1917 , only 10 percent of the Palestinian population was Jewish. By 1933 , the share had risen to 33 percent. During the 1930s and 1940s, tensions increased in the area, and there were often armed clashes between the two population groups. The British, who then controlled the area as a mandate area under the League of Nations, wanted a way out and sent the case to the UN. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted what became known as the Partition Plan – Resolution 181 . According to this, Palestine was to be divided into:

  • a Jewish state (56 percent of the area),
  • an Arab state (43 percent of the area) and
  • with Jerusalem as an international enclave.

The resolution had no solution on how this should be put into practice, and it was up to the parties to resolve it all between themselves. This became a recipe for war. Just days after the resolution was adopted, civil war broke out in Palestine. Subsequently, on May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence . The next day, the Arab states invaded. They suffered a crushing defeat, and by the time the smoke subsided, Israel controlled 77 percent of Palestine, as well as West Jerusalem. 750,000 Palestinians had fled. The main lines of the conflict had been laid.

In 1967 , in a new major war between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, Israel conquered the remaining 23 percent of Palestine in six days – Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – in addition to the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

Since then, all peace negotiations (and acts of war) have revolved around solving the problems that arose as a combination of the wars of 1948-49 and 1967.

  • The refugee question: What should happen to the Palestinians who fled or were expelled in 1948−1949 their descendants? Should they be allowed to return?
  • Boundaries: These were to be based on the lines from before the 1967 war. Israel should thus be able to keep 77% of Palestine, while the Palestinians should have Gaza and the West Bank.
  • Security and mutual recognition for both Israel and the Palestinians
  • Jerusalem was to be divided between the parties. Israel will get West Jerusalem, while the Palestinians will get East Jerusalem.

This is the theory. In practice, the Palestinian refugees have not been allowed to return, and Israel has retained control of all of Palestine.

3: The collapse of the peace process

It was not until 1991 that the first negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began. These so-called Madrid negotiations did not succeed. But then, in 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Movement (PLO) and Israel signed the so-called Oslo Accords (a lot of secret preparations had been made in Oslo and the surrounding area with Norwegian diplomats as facilitators). This was not a complete peace agreement, but a partial agreement that was to be followed by a timetable that would result in lasting peace between the parties.

The optimism that followed in the wake of the Oslo agreement was quickly destroyed. First, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a far-right Israeli, and then came the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000 (the first in 1987). Violence escalated on both sides, and trust between the parties disappeared. Some scattered attempts to launch new rounds of peace talks did not succeed – the most famous are Camp David in 2000, the Taba talks in 2001, George W. Bush’s roadmap for peace and Annapolis in 2007.

After President Barack Obama took power in the White House in 2009, he has also tried to start new rounds of negotiations. These completely collapsed in the summer of 2010. Since then, there has been no peace process at all.

4: More and more settlers

At the same time as the peace process between the parties collapsed at the top political level, there was an extensive, Israeli new construction on the ground in Palestine (in the West Bank) which in reality undermined the negotiations while they were taking place. The number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has more than doubled since the Oslo agreement was signed. About 500,000 such settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – areas that will become Palestinian by a possible peace agreement. These areas will also fall within the boundaries of the state that the Palestinians will declare through their UN application.

All these settlements are illegal under international law. It was the settlements that caused Barack Obama to fail in his attempts to bring about peace talks. Since 2002, Israel has also built a wall that effectively separates the Palestinian territories from the Israeli ones. This, combined with separate roads only for Israelis , as well as a huge network of roadblocks and checkpoints controlled by the Israeli army means that the West Bank is geographically fragmented and with minimal freedom of movement for Palestinians.

This policy has often been referred to as ” establishing facts on the ground” . In other words, Israel has created a reality that both they and the Palestinians will later have to deal with in negotiations. According to the World Bank, the Palestinians have access to only 50 percent of the West Bank, that is, only half of the area that in theory will be their future state.

5: Palestinian division

The combination of expanded Israeli settlement and the collapse of diplomacy was bad enough from a Palestinian perspective. But at the same time, there was also a development on the Palestinian side that politically and geographically divided Palestinian society. Since the 1960s, Fatah , led by Yassir Arafat, has been leading the Palestinian liberation struggle. The party dominated the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), and it was this political apparatus that negotiated and signed the Oslo agreement.

In the late 1980s, the Islamist movement Hamas emerged. Hamas was a child of the intifada , the Palestinian uprising that began in the occupied territories in 1987. Hamas therefore led a far more uncompromising line than Fatah. While Fatah in the early 1990s negotiated directly with Israel, Hamas sought to destabilize the peace talks. Hamas was therefore long known exclusively for its suicide bombings against Israeli targets. But in the mid-2000s, Hamas gradually began to moderate. It became a regular party that surprised the world in 2006 when the party won the Palestinian parliamentary elections.

As a result of this election victory, the situation on the Palestinian side changed rapidly. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to reach an agreement between Fatah, which held the presidency (Mahmoud Abbas), and Hamas, which controlled the parliament, it all collapsed in two coups . In 2007, Gaza was taken over by Hamas, while the West Bank was taken over by the Palestinian Authority (PA), under Fatah’s leadership. Palestine was thus divided into two .

6: Technocracy takes over

In order to manage in the Palestinian territories, President Mahmoud Abbas hired economist Salam Fayyad as prime minister. Fayyad has a past in the World Bank, was well-liked by the Americans and did not belong to one of the two dominant political parties. He was the technocrat who kept the ship afloat. Technically, Fayyad’s leadership was apolitical, but it was out of his technocratic rule that the Palestinian UN trail emerged – that is, a desire to have a Palestinian state recognized in UN bodies.

In 2009, in response to the complete stagnation of negotiations, the Palestinian Prime Minister launched what has since become known as the Fayyad Plan . According to this, a Palestinian state should be in place by the autumn of 2011. This meant that all state institutions – ministries, police, banking and the like – should be in place, and that economic management should be well-functioning.
The plan was ambitious, but it progressed by leaps and bounds, and Fayyad garnered praise from many quarters. Nevertheless, the plan was criticized by many parties, especially within Palestine. Part of this criticism was that he far exceeded his mandate. After all, Fayyad was not elected. But as diplomacy stagnated and eventually collapsed, at the same time as the political division on the Palestinian side was not healed, the Fayyad plan became the leading policy. As early as 2010 , the World Bank gave the Palestinians the green light . In their view, the Palestinian economic institutions were sufficiently ready for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

However, the Palestinian economy is extremely fragile . It depends both on aid and on the Israeli government paying the tax money it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Of course, this is not special for Palestine. South Sudan, which in the summer of 2011 became the UN’s 193 member states, has a far worse economy than Palestine without this affecting their application.

7: Palestinian collection

In early 2011, in what has become known as the Arab Spring , the Middle East was suddenly turned upside down. Fatah’s most important ally in the region, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, lost power and popular power suddenly became a new and important part of political reality. The upheavals contributed greatly to the two political opponents – Hamas and Fatah – coming together in May 2011; they agreed on political cooperation and Palestinian unification.

The details of this agreement are unclear and much of it has not been put into practice yet, but it has held. It has done so despite the fact that Israel has responded by withholding tax money, which means that the Palestinian Authority is struggling financially.

Shortly after the collection was announced, Mahmoud Abbas launched his intention to apply for UN membership. The Palestinian unity was important for the UN trail for several reasons:

  • The application covered the whole of Palestine, and not just the West Bank.
  • It meant that Hamas was on board and on the team.
  • Israel’s reaction to the rally, namely that it will not negotiate with Hamas, showed that the negotiating trail was dead.

According to, the Palestinian leadership insists that the UN application does not undermine the “peace process”, as the United States and Israel claim, but on the contrary will strengthen it. The Palestinian argument is that once they have received their UN recognition and become a state, negotiations will take place between two states and not, as before, between a state (Israel) and a movement (PLO). The hope is therefore that a UN recognition will even out the unbalanced political balance of power in the conflict, as well as (re) internationalize it.

The great historical irony here is that Israel argued in the same way when they applied for (and gained) UN membership in 1949. It was then claimed that membership in the UN was a necessary condition for Israel to be able to make peace with its neighbors. Only if they could negotiate on an equal footing, ie as UN members, could the negotiations succeed, it was said at the time. Israel thus became a member in 1949, without leading to peace. Peace is far away for the time being, but the Palestinians have been waiting for 64 years – since the UN partition plan – for a state. This year, at least, this injustice can be remedied at the UN.

8: What comes next?

The United States will apparently veto the Security Council. The Palestinian application will still get the necessary 2/3 majority in the UN General Assembly for them to receive state observer status.

But what happens then? The question is difficult to answer, but something is still clear: First, the Palestinians will have their demands strengthened – the resolution will recognize that the Palestinians have a right to the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the capital. Furthermore, it will mean that future negotiations will take place between two internationally recognized states. It will also mean that Palestine has access to a number of international bodies, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague – where they can in theory sue Israel.

Other questions are far more unclear. How will Israel react? Will they pretend to be nothing and continue as before? Will they respond by annexing the settlements in the West Bank? Will they close the borders and thus stifle the Palestinian economy? At this point, the only thing that seems certain is that Israel does not quite know what to do . They have in a short time lost their two most important allies in the region – Turkey and Egypt – so even though they are still the region’s dominant military power, they stand politically with their backs to the wall.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas