I recently had the chance to sit down with the former U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, David J. Dunford. Ambassador Dunford was appointed to Oman in 1992 and served until 1995. He has since retired to Tucson, Arizona, where he is an adjunct professor in the Near Eastern Studies department at the University of Arizona.
In September, the Palestinians will attempt to gain UN recognition of a Palestinian state. There are so many questions surrounding the legitimacy and intention of the Palestinian effort, and many of them go unanswered. Thus, I decided to use my time with Ambassador Dunford to discuss some of the more central questions surrounding the issue. Here’s what he had to say:
RL: The most recent Palestinian reconciliation attempt is faltering, largely over the disagreement over Fatah’s desire to appoint Salam Fayyad head of the unity government. How much will the inability to put together a unity government, even if only symbolic, affect the chances of the UN recognizing a Palestinian state in September?
Ambassador Dunford: The current decision by the Palestinians to go to the UN is the brainchild of Salam Fayyad, former IMF official and current Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. It is given force by the success Fayyad has had in creating Palestinian institutions characteristic of a state. The IMF, the World Bank and the UN have all affirmed that the Palestinians are administratively ready for statehood. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress in May and Congress’ reaction make it clear to the Palestinians and most other observers that the Oslo Process is a dead end. They want to get the world’s attention and will need a real reason to change course. The absence of a unity government will make it more difficult to drum up critical European support for the initiative. At the same time, a unity government including a Hamas that is unwilling to renounce violence will strengthen U.S. and Israeli opposition. Either way, I would expect the Palestinian initiative to go forward. Hamas opposition to Fayyad is a serious obstacle to the continued international funding that keeps the Palestinian Authority afloat. It is possible that the two sides could compromise on Muhammad Mustafa, head of the Palestinian Investment Fund. Mustafa had credibility with international financial institutions as well as with the Gaza leadership.
RL: If the UN does recognize a Palestinian state, what will change? I feel that the common reader hears about a possible recognition of Palestinian sovereignty, but doesn’t fully understand what implications it will have on an international scale, or just for Palestinians and Israelis. Can you shed some light on this?
Ambassador Dunford: Very little may change. The Palestinian leadership unilaterally declared an independent Palestinian state in 1988 and currently 116 of 192 UN members recognize it. A UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution will not make Palestine a UN member but it may lead to several more nations recognizing the Palestinian state. UN membership requires a decision by the UN Security Council (UNSC) where the U.S. has a veto and would almost certainly use it. This will further damage U.S. standing in the Arab world and elsewhere. It will increase Israel’s international isolation. If the UN vote is not accompanied by real change, it could lead to popular demonstrations in the Palestinian territories, inspired in part by events in Tunisia and Egypt, with the potential to overwhelm a Palestinian government. I applaud Tom Friedman’s suggestion that the U.S. could use this as an opportunity to achieve a real breakthrough. I see this as unlikely given the President’s current focus on the debt ceiling crisis and the winding down of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but, then again, the situation could change by September.
RL: Comparatively, what would a rejection by the UN for Palestinian statehood mean for the future of the Palestinians and the actual Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Ambassador Dunford: UN rejection of the Palestinian initiative will empower those Palestinians opposed to any accommodation with Israel and would be yet another nail in the coffin of a two-state solution. If the current trajectory of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not altered by acts of political courage – by Israelis, by Palestinians, and/or by Americans – Israel’s long-term future as both a Jewish and a democratic state is in jeopardy.
RL: Could an uprising in the Palestinian territories provide the urgency needed to actually resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least jump start the peace-process? Or is it more likely to just throw Palestinian politics into an even deeper hole than it’s already in, resulting in peace being pushed farther away?
Ambassador Dunford: The first intifada (uprising) that began in 1987 contributed to a sense of urgency shared by many Israelis. It was upsetting for them to see Israeli soldiers (who in many cases were also their sons and daughters) on television confronting unarmed or rock-throwing Palestinians. That plus the 1990-91 Gulf War, which ended Gulf Arab funding for the PLO, and the election of a credible and courageous Israeli leader (Rabin) opened the door for promising peace negotiations. At the same time, the first intifada saw the rise of Hamas. The second intifada that began in 2000 was not only more violent but it polarized both Israeli and Palestinian society and greatly damaged prospects for peace. Renewed violence may come with or without a UN resolution. If the threat of violence doesn’t inspire the U.S. and other members of the Quartet to do something creative to avert the looming confrontation in the UN, it is hard to see how actual violence will lead to anything positive.
RL: Can a fair and realistic peace treaty that respects a two-state solution ever be signed, let alone carried out, while Hamas is in a position of power?
Ambassador Dunford: While many of us think of Hamas as primarily a terrorist organization, we need to remind ourselves that Hamas won an election and represents a significant number of Palestinians. Some of those Palestinians will never support a peace treaty with Israel but many would likely do so if they believed the peace treaty to be fair and likely to lead to better lives for Palestinians. If enough of them can be convinced that such a treaty is possible, the Hamas leadership will face a choice – change to reflect the views of their constituents or be marginalized politically.
RL: Thanks for the taking the time to talk, Ambassador. I look forward to our next discussion.
Ambassador Dunford: Thanks for having me on, Rob.
This interview was originally published at www.foreignpolicyblogs.com.