If negotiations are out, the UN will be in

Israel should strive to make it more difficult for Palestinians to justify bringing their case to the UN in September.

Palestinian youth next to UNESCO office in Gaza 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian youth next to UNESCO office in Gaza 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When US Secretary of State John Kerry first tackled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in late March, he made a serious request of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: In order to give talks a chance, pledge to temporarily refrain from bringing Israel before the International Criminal Court or taking unilateral actions at the UN. By early April, reports surfaced that Abbas had agreed to postpone any further attempts at waging “lawfare” against Israel for two to three months.
But now, a very consequential deadline looms: September.
With Kerry about to visit Israel again, the scheduled détente about to expire and with talks a ways off, PA representatives are again threatening to take legal actions that could significantly impact Israel and the US.
In late May, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the PA had completed preparatory legal work to join “63 different UN agencies, conventions and treaties” and would move forward with the planned onslaught at the UN General Assembly in September if talks were not underway by then. Shortly thereafter, the European Union raised the specter of ICC prosecutions against Israel, saying the EU would support a Palestinian appeal to the ICC if negotiations failed to get off the ground due to continued settlement construction.
US officials have begun to signal alarm at the possibility of having to stand alone to battle Palestinian bids at the UN. Last year, the US could only convince seven states apart from Israel to join in opposing the Palestinian statehood bid, and two of them were the ex-US territories of Palau and the Marshall Islands.
Secretary Kerry expressed concern in his recent speech to the American Jewish Committee. “The United States of America will always have Israel’s back,” Kerry said. “But wouldn’t we both be stronger if we had more company?” In Israel, however, there’s been a conspicuous lack of public discussion on the subject.
Israelis have long been dismissive of the UN, which, for good reason, they see as biased. They also tend to view the UN as toothless, and there’s something to this assessment too. After all, the 35 UN Human Rights Council resolutions issued against Israel in the past five years – an astonishing 68 percent of all resolutions against countries during that time – have had little discernible impact.
But the particular Palestinian actions planned for September would have significant direct and indirect consequences.
If the PA applies to join more UN agencies – it joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2011 – its applications will likely be accepted. The US will oppose the move, and will expend political capital trying to get others to do so, to avoid the symbolism of standing alone, but won’t be able to veto the applications.
Legislation enacted in the US after the 2011 UNESCO bid requires Congress to stop payments to the PA if Palestine becomes a full member of any other UN agencies before reaching an agreement with Israel. The statute permits Secretary Kerry to waive this funding stop for the current fiscal year. However, Congress could choose not to re-appropriate funds after that. And there’s nothing that should scare a sane Israeli government more than the prospect of a defunded, aid-dependent PA collapsing, leading to a more radical regime or Israel having to govern the West Bank.
The Palestinians haven’t revealed which “UN conventions and treaties” they would target, but the list likely includes the Rome Statute, which grants membership to the International Criminal Court and is a gateway to initiating criminal proceedings against Israeli officials.
The US government will oppose these bids, too, on the reasonable grounds that it’s wrong for the Palestinians to appeal to the international community while refusing to negotiate with Israel directly.
But again, there generally isn’t an American veto preventing membership to the various UN agreements, so despite the administration’s best efforts, the motions to join are likely to pass, particularly now that the EU has said it would support Palestine at the ICC. All the while, the US will be depleting the precious diplomatic reserves it needs to fight other battles in the international arena, including, most importantly, stronger action against Iran.
And if there’s anything other than the PA’s potential collapse that should scare a sane Israeli government, it’s weakening America’s hand vis-a-vis Iran.
In fact, given the essential role the US plays in safeguarding Israel’s interests, which polls show the overwhelming majority of Israelis appreciate, Israelis should object to diminishing America’s standing to deal with any international conflict.
In short, while the causal chains might be long, and the harm might take time to materialize, the UN actions the Palestinians are threatening to take if negotiations continue to stall are very consequential.
Israelis should take heed. Their leaders should strive to make it more difficult for Palestinians to justify bringing their case to the UN in September.
The author is associate director of research and policy at the Israel Policy Forum. She holds a JD from New York University School of Law (2010) and was a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Law from 2010-2012.