Israel, PA face off over Palestinian statehood

Palestinian Statehood

Posted on: 19 Aug 2011

Israeli officials are gearing up for a diplomatic battle royale in New York in September over the Palestinian Authority’s defiant bid to secure full membership in the United Nations at its annual Opening Assembly. Both parties have been making their respective cases to world leaders over recent weeks and the scorecard from the high stakes standoff will likely be a mix of losses and gains for each side, but with zero progress towards peace.

After months of uncertainty over exactly what the Palestinians would be demanding, PA officials finally confirmed in mid-August that they will be making a request for admittance into the United Nations as a member state.

The petition for recognition of Palestinian sovereignty within the pre-1967 lines is to be formally presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 20, just as the world body convenes to begin its autumn session. PA leaders expect Ban to then submit the request to the Security Council, where they claim to already have the support of most members but must wait to see if the United States blocks the measure with its veto power.

The decision came after weeks of intense internal debate among senior PA figures, who were reportedly split over whether to seek maximal demands or step back a bit to ease pressure from Washington and other quarters. But PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas is now set to personally table the “historic initiative” and let the chips fall where they may.

Israel adamantly opposes the Palestinian move, saying a unilateral declaration of independence would breach all prior agreements signed by the two sides and the accepted international framework for resolving the conflict, as well as deal a serious blow to the peace process.

In recent months, Jerusalem has been lobbying world leaders to resist the PA effort to bypass direct talks, and a number of Western democracies have publicly pledged to oppose the move. The Obama administration privately warned PA officials that such a measure would be met with a US veto in the Security Council and that other consequences may follow.

But Abbas has refused to give ground and an open session of the Security Council last month turned into a dress rehearsal for the expected September showdown.

“We have completed our responsibilities and are ready to govern ourselves. We cannot keep waiting for Israel to negotiate with good faith,” asserted the Palestinian envoy to the UN.

Israel responded that the Palestinians were deeply divided between the warring factions Fatah and Hamas, and that recognition of Palestinian statehood would bring instability to the region.

“On behalf of whom will you present a resolution in September? Mr. Abbas or Hamas?” asked Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor. “Will it be on behalf of both the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas terrorist organization, which advances a charter calling for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews?”

State of bankruptcy

This diplomatic battle has been brewing ever since PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad unveiled an ambitious plan two years ago to have the infrastructure of a Palestinian state in place by this September. At first, Abbas opposed the initiative as a personal challenge by Fayyad to build his own power base. But Abbas has since co-opted the idea, calculating that in the end a White House openly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would not staunch the international momentum he hoped to create around a unilateral bid for statehood in lieu of futile talks with a Israeli leader made to appear inflexible.

Over time, Abbas has raised Palestinian expectations to the point where he is now unwilling to back down and risk their ire, even though key members of the US Congress have threatened to cut funding to the Palestinians if Abbas forces Washington to cast an embarrassing veto. The American aid package of over $500 million per annum is crucial to the improving Palestinian economy, although it largely funds construction projects and other private initiatives. It is the European Union which chiefly subsidizes the PA budget, effectively paying the salaries of some 150,000 Palestinian teachers, police officers and other government employees.

Oddly, the bid for independence also comes at a time when the PA is anything but financially self-reliant. Officials in Ramallah have repeatedly warned of late that the PA is on the brink of bankruptcy, largely due to the failure of Arab states to meet their donor pledges to its annual budget. Those same Arab states, in the form of a recent Arab League endorsement, are now determined to push ahead with the PA’s bid for independence at the UN, thereby foisting an instantly failed-state upon the international community.

Diplomatic dance

The Palestinian decision to forge ahead with its unilateral plans at the UN marks a clear failure for American diplomacy. For months now, the Obama administration has tried to persuade Abbas to abandon the bypass option and return to direct negotiations with Israel. Washington’s strategy was to combine warnings of a breakdown in bilateral relations with the incentive of concessions extracted from Israel.

In his May 19 speech at the State Department, US President Barack Obama surprised Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu with his call for resuming talks based on the pre-1967 lines, a long-standing PA demand. But Obama’s blunt handling of the Israeli premier had little impact on the Palestinians, who only began asking for more.

Meantime, Netanyahu concluded the only way to guarantee a US veto in the Security Council was to give Obama further inducements to offer the Palestinians if they would come back to the negotiating table.

In a delicate diplomatic dance, just as the Middle East Quartet gathered recently to plot a unified strategy for avoiding New York and salvaging the peace process, Netanyahu quietly offered to accept the 1967 lines as a framework for talks, but conditioned it on the Palestinians also recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. The package deal was based on Obama’s subsequent speech before the AIPAC Policy Conference in which he clarified that talks over future borders needed to take into account “realities on the ground” – a euphemism for large Jewish settlement blocs that Israel hopes to retain in any final agreement.

Obama’s AIPAC address also included a key assurance glaringly missing from the State Department speech – that Israel should be accepted as a Jewish state, a formula which would largely negate the Palestinian claim to a right of return for millions of refugees.

Israel’s flexibility was not reciprocated, however, and the Quartet has still been at a loss over how to corral the Palestinians ahead of the UN Opening Assembly.

Abbas made clear in a recent New York Times opinion column that his goal in this diplomatic confrontation is to use a favorable UN resolution as a springboard for an intensified international legal campaign against Israel, thus deepening the conflict rather than resolving it.

Meantime, Netanyahu has warned Western leaders that a UN vote in favor of statehood would harden the Palestinian position for years to come and make it extremely difficult to negotiate a peace agreement.

The veteran Israeli leader hopes his recent flexibility has ensured a US veto of a Palestinian statehood resolution in the UN Security Council. This would leave the PA with the next-best option of requesting General Assembly approval of “Palestine” as a non-member state, with borders along the pre-1967 lines and Jerusalem as its capital.

Such a result would bolster the legitimacy of Palestinian territorial claims against Israel, among other effects. But at the same time, the PA could also find its relations with Washington in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future, while handing Israel the validation it needs to take some unilateral actions of its own.