Analysis: Palestinians’ UN vote, Israel's elections

Abbas has a decision to make: bring the UN statehood bid to a vote in November, or wait until after Israeli polls.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas 311 (R) (photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas 311 (R)
(photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been careful not to say when exactly he will bring a motion to the United Nations General Assembly seeking non-member state observer status for “Palestine.”
Israeli officials say there has been considerable pressure on Abbas from Washington – which has been adamantly opposed to the measure – to delay it until after the November 6 US election so as not to make President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign any more difficult than it already is.
And Abbas, who clearly would prefer Obama in the White House rather than Republican candidate Mitt Romney, obliged. He did not announce concrete plans to bring a proposal to the General Assembly during his strident speech to the body in late September.
A couple of new dates were bandied about: November 15 and the very symbolic date of November 29 – the anniversary of the UN’s 1947 vote on the partition of Palestine, an idea the Jews accepted but the Arabs rejected.
Then, two weeks ago, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced early elections. Not only that, but soon afterward he also announced a merger with the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, the man who declared there could be no peace accord with Abbas, labeled the PA leader a “liar, coward and a wimp” and said said the Palestinian leader was involved in “diplomatic terrorism” against Israel and should be replaced.
Abbas – who a few weeks ago, even before the “Biberman” merger, met in Ramallah with a delegation from the left-wing Geneva Initiative and waxed nostalgic about Ehud Olmert – is now facing the prospect of four more years of Netanyahu and Liberman. This will force him into making some difficult decisions.
The decisions will be even more difficult if Obama loses and Romney takes over. Romney was secretly taped in September telling donors at a private fundraiser that the Palestinians were not interested in peace.
One immediate decision Abbas will face after the January 22 Israeli election (assuming Netanyahu wins) is whether this time around he will engage with the prime minister.
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In 2009, after Netanyahu was elected and Obama called for a complete settlement construction freeze, including in Jerusalem, Abbas made a tactical decision not to negotiate.
Except for a fleeting period in September 2010, he stood by that decision, apparently hoping either that the diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians and tension with the US would bring the Netanyahu government down or that Obama would “deliver” Israel.
Neither happened. Nevertheless, Abbas stood by the preconditions he placed on negotiations, and no negotiations took place. Nothing moved.
If Netanyahu wins, Abbas will have to decide whether to continue that policy for another number of years or enter into negotiations, even though Liberman would be the prime minister’s new political deputy.
After Netanyahu announced his merger with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party last week, an aide close to the prime minister clarified that Netanyahu still believed in a two-state solution – something Liberman has said is unrealistic, opting instead for a long-term interim solution – and still wanted to engage with Abbas, if only the PA leader would agree.
But even before deciding whether he should consent, Abbas will have to make another decision: whether to bring the UN issue to a vote in November as planned, or wait until after the Israeli balloting.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that Abbas is getting advice from various European countries warning him it would be a mistake to take this step now and that – if he is intent on going through with the move – he should wait until after January 22. The reason is simple: Israel has already said it would respond to Abbas’s move at the UN, and while it has not said what that reaction would be, the possibilities range from the mild to the severe – from barring Palestinian VIPs from traveling to Israel, to ending tax transfers to the PA and even annexing all or parts of the territories.
Some of those presently counseling the PA are telling its leaders that if they take this step now – on the eve of the election – they will face a much harsher Israeli response because Netanyahu and Liberman will want to appear very tough to the Israeli electorate. Bringing a vote now could also have the unintended consequence of strengthening Israel’s right-wing because a vote that isolates the country in the international community would likely lead to a rallying of the public around the flag.
Rather than faulting Netanyahu for failing to negotiate (a Peace Index survey released Sunday showed that 53% of Israeli Jews do not think he missed opportunities with Abbas, while 32% think he did), Abbas will be blamed by a good part of the electorate for putting Israel in a corner.
And that is a sentiment that could actually help Netanyahu at the polls.