Analysis from Israel

Interviewed by BBC Arabic this weekend, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas denied reports that he would seek UN Security Council approval for unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state. Rather, he said, “We will turn to the United Nations and the Security Council to strengthen what has been agreed on in the road map and approved by the Security Council, a two-state solution based on the June 4, 1967 borders.”

That may sound innocuous. But in fact, Security Council acquiescence to this proposal would both radically alter the current international position and demolish the already faltering principle that the talks’ outcome should not be prejudiced by unilateral action.

While most of the world already believes the 1967 lines should be the final border, the formal basis for the talks remains Security Council Resolution 242, which says no such thing. This resolution purposefully required an Israeli withdrawal only from “territories” captured in 1967, not “the territories” or “all the territories.” As Lord Caradon, the British UN ambassador who drafted 242, explained, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.” America’s then UN ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, similarly said the two omitted words “were not accidental …. the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.” This was equally clear to the Soviet Union and Arab states, which is why they unsuccessfully pushed to include those extra words.

Formally, therefore, the final border is subject to negotiations: The Palestinians can seek the 1967 lines, but Israel is free to seek to retain parts of the territories. However, should the council endorse “a two-state solution based on the June 4, 1967 borders,” this would no longer be true: Instead, the world would have formally adopted the Palestinian position in a binding resolution — thereby blatantly prejudicing the outcome of the talks.

Ironically, this could force Israel to respond with accelerated unilateral action of its own: settlement construction, and perhaps even formal annexation. A major spur to continued settlement construction in recent years has been the escalating international pressure on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which led Jerusalem to conclude that its only chance of retaining areas it deems critical for its security was to put so many people there that moving them would be impossible. If this pressure switched from de facto to de jure, more aggressive Israeli countermeasures might become necessary.

In contrast, had the world really treated the border as negotiable rather than openly backed the Palestinian position, Israel could have agreed to freeze settlement construction, because creating “facts on the ground” would not have been necessary to protect its interests.

An escalating war of unilateral moves and countermoves would not be conducive to any agreement. That might not disturb Abbas, who has repeatedly demonstrated a preference for dictated rather than negotiated solutions. But it ought to disturb all those Security Council members who claim to view an Israeli-Palestinian agreement as top priority.

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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