September: Time for High Holy Days, PA statehood bid

Diplomacy: PA President Abbas is expected to ask the UN General Assembly on Thursday for statehood status.

Mahmoud Abbas UN 370 (photo credit: Scott Eells/Bloomberg)
Mahmoud Abbas UN 370
(photo credit: Scott Eells/Bloomberg)
Here we go again. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas takes to the UN podium after a speech by the representative of Jamaica next Thursday, he is expected – once more – to blast Israel.
According to assessments in Jerusalem, he will blame Israel for a litany of crimes against the Palestinians, bewail the stalemated diplomatic process and then – as a result of that stalemated process for which he bears not a small amount of responsibility –request that the UN General Assembly sometime during its 67th session admit “Palestine” as a non-member observer state.
This status would give the PA kinship with the Vatican, which also enjoys this UN designation.
If Abbas’s speech last year, when he unsuccessfully but dramatically sought full UN membership for a Palestinian state, is any indication – and it probably is – he will accuse Israel of everything from ethnic cleansing to waging a “war of aggression” against Gaza to killing at checkpoints and blocking the horizon of peace through expanding “racist” settlements.
He is not expected to say anything about Hamas, or about how that organization has usurped control of Gaza; nor about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo that has given a backwind to Hamas and made his own position more precarious. Failure of the Arab world to provide promised financial support for the fiscally strapped PA? Not likely to be mentioned.
Abbas, however, will not bring a formal resolution for statehood status Thursday to be voted on in the GA. This he will only do after the US presidential elections on November 6.
The Palestinians – it is widely assumed – do not want to do anything that could complicate reelection prospects for US President Barack Obama, and a vote in the UN to give “Palestine” non-member observer state status could do just that, as the Republicans would jump all over the move as an example of how Obama has, indeed, as Republican candidate Mitt Romney said at his party’s nominating convention last month, thrown Israel “under the bus.”
If the Palestinians didn’t like Romney after his July visit to Jerusalem where he spoke of the city as Israel’s capital and talked about cultural differences as being a reason for wide economic disparities between Israel and the West Bank, they like him even less now after he was secretly taped this week telling a group of donors in Florida that the “Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace.”
That argument – that the Palestinians are not interested in peace – will be used by Israel to combat the effort by the Palestinians in the GA once it is brought to a vote.
The main argument will be that such a move will endanger any prospects of future diplomatic talks, because if the UN GA accepts “Palestine” as a non-member state within the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as its capital, future negotiations will be doomed.
No Palestinian leader would ever be able to negotiate on the basis of anything less, and no Israeli leader would be willing to negotiate with those as the starting terms of reference.
Beyond ruining negotiations, Israel will argue that this measure also contravenes widely accepted frameworks for peace, such as UN Security Council Resolution 242, the road map, and the Oslo Accords, which all stipulate that the borders of a future Palestinian state need to be worked out through negotiations.
For instance, Yasser Arafat’s letter to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin from September 1993 stated clearly that “the PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations.”
Will these arguments have any impact on the GA vote and keep the Palestinians from getting their resolution passed in that body? No. If Iran was able to get 120-members of the Non- Aligned Movement to go to a summit there last month, the Palestinians will be able to garner 129 states in the GA for their statehood bid.
It is simple math. Indeed, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said in the past that the UN body is so stacked against Israel that if the Palestinians brought a resolution saying the world was flat to the GA, it would pass.
So what is Israel’s strategy? The strategy is two-fold. First it is to keep the world’s so called “quality” states – the developed democracies – from voting for the move. A resolution passed on the strength of countries like Bangladesh, Iraq and Cuba is not the same as one that also includes Canada, Japan and Australia.
And the second is to get states with an influence on the Palestinians – namely some of the EU countries and even some Arab states – to talk them out of actually going ahead with the step, arguing that it would boomerang against them and run counter to their interests.
According to this argument, if the Palestinians do indeed go through with such a step, it will lead to an Israeli reaction that could range from withholding the transfer of tax revenues to the fiscally strapped PA to annexing the Jordan Valley and major settlement blocks.
Also, runs this reasoning, even a post-election Washington is likely to oppose such a move and might – as a result – cut off all economic aid and close the Palestinian mission in the US.
And all of that for a move that will have little real effect on the Palestinian reality. Or, as Obama said last September during a briefing with Hispanic journalists, “What happens in New York City can occupy a lot of press attention but is not going to change actually what is happening on the ground until the Israelis and Palestinians sit down.”
What was true then is equally true now.
The significance of acceptance as a nonmember observer state in the GA would be more symbolic, and rhetorical, than anything else. True, it may give the Palestinians standing to bring charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court, but jurists are not even sure about that.
On paper, getting the non-member statehood designation should enhance the Palestinians’ efforts to gain admittance as a state in some 16 UN organizations – it already gained admittance to UNESCO in November – but that is only on paper.
As the UNESCO precedent showed, once a UN organization or agency admits a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, they will – as a result of US law – lose US funding. The Palestinians did not move on from UNESCO to other organizations after November because many countries that benefit from these organizations urged them not to so as not to jeopardize budgets.
These are all arguments Israel will use when mobilizing against the Palestinian move. So far, however, there has been very little open diplomatic activity. Unlike last September, when Israeli diplomats crisscrossed the globe to deprive the Palestinians of even a simple majority in the Security Council where they were seeking full UN membership as a state, right now the efforts are much more low-key.
The reasons for this are varied. First is a sense that there is no real reason to get into full throttle until the Palestinians actually bring the measure to a vote, rather than when they are only talking about doing so.
Secondly is a desire not to play into Abbas’s hands by focusing on the Palestinian bid at a time when the world’s attention in the Middle East is elsewhere: from Syria to the anti-Western protests throughout the Muslim world to the situation in Iran.
It is precisely because the world’s attention is elsewhere, according to assessment in Jerusalem, that the Palestinians are once again trying to shine the light on themselves at the UN. The degree to which the world has lost interest can be illustrated by the fact that in only one of six North American television interviews Netanyahu has given since the end of July did a question having to do with the Palestinians even come up.
And the third reason has to do with Iran.
When Netanyahu takes the UN podium on Thursday, some 15 minutes after Abbas, with only the speaker from Slovenia sandwiched in between them, he is expected to focus primarily on the Iranian nuclear threat. What this will show is that with all due respect to the Palestinians, it is Iran and the threat it poses today – not Abbas and the Palestinians – that is foremost in Netanyahu’s mind.
As for the Palestinian statehood bid? There will probably be ample chance to deal with that issue – in one configuration or another – at the 68th UN General Assembly meeting in 2013.