Winning by diplomacy

The Foreign Ministry has been focused on successfully thwarting the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, much of the effort has been by Danny Ayalon.

Danny Ayalon 521 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir)
Danny Ayalon 521
(photo credit: Yossi Zamir)
Not since Balaam has there been such a reversal of diplomatic fortune. In these biblical parts, where inverted outcomes are the stuff of holidays, someone, somewhere, is probably recording a chapter in the Book of Annals on the Palestinian Authority’s aborted unilateral bid for statehood at the United Nations.
“There will be other rounds, and we will never despair,” a vanquished but determined Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said last week, conceding that the Palestinians had fallen short of their goal.
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, diplomats are neither gloating nor resting on their laurels. There isn’t time. For the better part of a year they have been multi-tasking, warding off a confluence of factors portending a political perfect storm – from the statehood bid to the Arab Spring to the looming Iranian nuclear threat.
But they are taking some credit.
“In spite of all the Palestinian plans and forecasts of a political ‘tsunami,’ this chapter ended well,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this week. (It may actually have been Defense Minister Ehud Barak who coined that phrase in a high-profile address last March in New York).Precisely how the bid crashed and burned some 14 months after US President Barack Obama first put it into play in his 2010 UN General Assembly speech is subject to interpretation.
In a series of meetings with The Jerusalem Post, ministry officials discussed Israel’s efforts to thwart the unilateral statehood bid. They cited the merits of a meticulously executed, carefully integrated strategy of hasbara (advocacy) and a proactive, relentless and no-nonsense approach to international diplomacy that had the full support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to ministry officials, Lieberman and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon – Israel’s former ambassador to the United States – were doggedly persistent and consistent in driving home Israel’s message at virtually every turn. They crisscrossed the globe for the better part of a year leading up to September’s GA, meeting with their foreign counterparts from Europe and Africa to Latin America and the Pacific. They met regularly with US government officials and with members of Congress, with the editorial boards of major publications and with leaders of Jewish organizations.
ON THE home front, the ministers hosted scores of special delegations. The ministry harnessed broadcast and social-media networks as key components in a calibrated campaign that cast Ayalon as a frequent guest on international interview programs and as the host of slickly produced ministry infomercials that went viral on YouTube. (In a span of four months, the two videos combined have been viewed more than 650,000 times.) “Israeli officials succeeded in convincing the international community that in the case of a unilateral state declaration, all bets were off,” a diplomatic insider and former negotiator told the Post. “Ultimately, the declaration dynamic can and will change. But at this stage, evidently, the ramifications were made abundantly clear.”
The emergence, constancy and clarity of Israel’s message – whether in closed diplomatic chambers or in open public forums and conferences – underscored Israel’s unflinching determination.
In the critical days leading up to the GA, Ayalon addressed the Palestinian Donors Conference at the UN, delivering a direct, no-holds-barred message in the presence of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, European Union Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton and Quartet Representative to the Middle East Tony Blair.
“Future assistance and cooperation could be severely and irreparably compromised if the Palestinian leadership continues on its path of essentially acting in contravention of all signed agreements that also regulate existing economic relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” said
The ministry’s put-it-to-you-straight, in-your-face strategy of talking points was not limited to the economic fallout.
In no uncertain terms, Lieberman and Ayalon, as well as ministers Moshe Ya’alon (Strategic Affairs), Uzi Landau (National Infrastructure) and Yuli Edelstein (Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs) reminded the international community on numerous occasions of the impact a unilateral act would have on previously signed peace agreements.
“The State of Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which created the Palestinian Authority,” Ayalon declared at the conference. “Israel will have absolutely no obligations toward a so-called Palestinian state, especially one created artificially in this building, in breach of these very accords.”
For those statehood enthusiasts counting on a swift UN approval akin to the one received last July by the newly established Republic of Sudan (that nation became Africa’s 54th country after it officially split off from the north following decades of guerrilla warfare), it was none other than Obama who, in his GA address, echoed the key distinction that Israel’s Foreign Ministry had put forth in the weeks since Sudan’s liberation.
“Ultimately, peace depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after our speeches are over, long after our votes have been tallied,” said the president, slowly letting the air out of the PA statehood balloon he himself had inflated a year earlier. “That’s the lesson of Northern Ireland, where ancient antagonists bridged their differences. That’s the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement led to an independent state. And that is, and will be, the path to a Palestinian state – negotiations between the parties.”
AS FOR the Palestinians and their eye toward future diplomatic rounds, it seems they have already moved on.
Coming on the heels of their successful entry into the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last week, the Palestinians have shifted gears. They are now pressing ahead with alternative plans to upgrade to “nonmember state” observer status at the UN – the gateway to membership in numerous other international organizations.
Such unilateral efforts, contend the decidedly more confident Israeli diplomatic corps, are doomed to failure.
“It’s a Pyrrhic victory,” Lieberman said of the UNESCO bid in his remarks before the Knesset Foreign Relations Committee.
Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, told an Israel Army Radio interviewer last Sunday that “it won’t advance the peace process in any significant way. It’s a dead-end.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appears to have gotten the message. In the wake of UNESCO’s action – which triggered the immediate cutoff of US and Canadian support and stripped the agency of about one-quarter of its total funding – Ban no longer sees merit in ongoing Palestinian membership efforts. Such steps, as he noted at the recent G20 summit in Cannes, are “not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody.”
Last Friday’s release of a UN Admissions Committee report revealing deep divisions over Palestinian statehood ahead of a possible Security Council vote appear to have capped the bid’s precipitous demise. That the report was not rubber-stamped but carefully thought through – openly questioning whether the Palestinian Authority met minimal criteria for UN membership – is a testament not only to how much has changed in the last 14 months, but to how decisively and convincingly Israeli arguments were presented to the international community, some diplomatic officials suggest.
As of this writing, nine out of 15 Security Council members are slated to oppose the measure, should it come up for a vote.
France, Britain and Colombia have announced their intentions to abstain, while it appears that the threatened US veto will not even come into play.
There are those, of course, who give more credit to Obama’s political instincts in an election year than to Israel’s hasbara strategy. Others, like New York City communal leader Dr. Joseph Frager, also credit Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Republican presidential candidate, for his September 19 press conference in New York City. Flanked by Jewish leaders, Perry called Obama’s Middle East policy “naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous.”
“There is no question the Perry press conference tipped the scales, making sure Obama gave the kind of UN speech he gave,” opined Frager, who said he helped plan the Perry event.
Two days later, in his speech to the GA, Obama would not only refrain from approving the unilateral statehood push but would articulate an Israeli-Jewish narrative reflecting the existential threat posed by terrorism against Israeli lives.
“Let us be honest with ourselves,” the president said in his address on September 21. “Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses.”
WITH THIS year’s Assembly receding into history, representatives of the Middle East Quartet are back in the region this week, attempting to jump-start talks by meeting separately with each of the sides. As of this writing, Quartet officials reported no discernible progress. Another round is scheduled for December.
Ayalon can now take stock of recent events, but just barely. He knows this match will go the full 15 rounds.
“This has been a long process and is by no means finished,” he told the Post. “We will continue working hard to prevent the Palestinians from abrogating signed agreements and international custom for their own narrow interests.”
“This is a diplomatic strategy that we have been working on for a long time and was not last minute,” said Ashley Perry, an advisor to the minister. “We pulled out all the stops to ensure its success. And it demonstrated the strategy belies those who claim that Israel is becoming more isolated. In fact, the opposite is true. Our strategy of integration, cooperation and greater involvement in the global agenda is paying dividends not just on this issue but on many of concern to Israel in the international arena.”
For Ayalon, events of the past year were not simply a chapter. What he sees as a paradigm shift, others might call a game-changer.
“For perhaps the first time, it is clear to the Palestinians that their demands will be resolutely rejected in a United Nations institution,” said Ayalon. “They should learn the lessons from this episode and give up on their unilateral demands and return to the negotiating table, which is the only way to arrive at a real and enduring peace.”
On to the next round. ■