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Palestinian Statehood Returns (Ho-Hum)

A second bid by the Palestinian Authority to have the United Nations recognize Palestinian statehood appears to be a case of “once more, but with less feeling.”

The P.A., which provoked a furor in Israel last September when it pushed unsuccessfully for recognition as a state by the Security Council, will go to the body’s General Assembly this time on September 27. But unlike last time, it won’t be for full admission to the U.N. And it won’t necessarily be for a vote right now. In fact, according to many analysts, both Israeli and Palestinian, it won’t even be because P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas thinks much will come of the whole initiative, which many expect will not be voted on until November.

“Nothing else has worked, and Abu Mazen continues to search for a strategy,” Yossi Alpher, former director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, told the Forward, referring to Abbas by his popular moniker. “Making the U.N. application and postponing the vote till November may be a very good way for him to get through the coming months.”

The Palestinians’ current plan calls for the P.A. to appeal to the General Assembly for recognition as a non-member state, a status currently only held by the Vatican. Non-member state status would not give the Palestinians a U.N. vote, but it would accord the P.A. some indirect recognition to its claims to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It would also allow the P.A. to join U.N. agencies, and the International Criminal Court, something that could be used in bids to initiate prosecutions against Israeli soldiers or even policymakers.

The initiative is a kind of default step, Palestinian officials say, fueled by frustration with Israel’s policies.

“We just see that no one has been able to stop Israeli violations or curb measures such as the [Israeli West Bank] settlements and the annexation of Jerusalem,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Ramallah-based spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organization. “Israel has refused to recognize the 1967 boundaries as the basis of a two-state solution, so we have to go somewhere to indicate that this territory is occupied, not disputed.’’

Significantly, Ashrawi stressed that no decision has yet been made on when to put the application to a General Assembly vote. The P.A.’s foreign minister, Riyadh Al-Malki, has said only that recognition would be achieved by the end of 2012. This leaves open the possibility that a vote could be deferred until after America’s election campaign, relieving President Obama, mindful of pro-Israel voters, of the need to take a harder line in supporting Israel’s opposition to the Palestinian move.

The Obama administration has, in any event, already made clear that it opposes the Palestinian step for being unilateral. Like Israel, the U.S. views such moves by the Palestinians as a breach of the understanding that differences in the peace process are to be negotiated directly between the parties.

It remains to be seen how far Washington would go in lobbying members of the G.A., where historically there has been a strong pro-Palestinian majority. The measure would not require endorsement by the Security Council, where the United States is one of five countries that can veto a resolution that otherwise has majority support.

Last year’s statehood push was short-lived as the Palestinians failed to muster even the nine Security Council votes necessary to trigger a veto from the United States.

This time around, Abbas is seen as making the move from a position of weakness, not because he is enamored of it. Among other things, he is said to be concerned the initiative could elicit punitive steps from the United States or Israel.

Hani Masri, director of the Badael (Alternatives) think tank in Ramallah, sees the U.N. membership bid primarily as a tactic to muster pressure for renewed negotiations on Abbas’s terms, which call for Israel to freeze its expansion of West Bank settlements. He believes that the P.A. leaders might suspend the bid at some point — in particular if Obama wins re-election, to give the president time to restart diplomacy.

“Abbas is betting on Obama,” Masri said. “He thinks the American administration has the solution and has the capacity to press Israel.”

In Israel’s view, it is the Palestinians who have refused to negotiate unconditionally. Unsurprisingly, Israeli officials reject the notion that the P.A. is being forced to turn to the U.N. because the peace process is stuck. Over the past several months the government has made a series of gestures that, Israeli officials argue, should suffice to get negotiations restarted. These included releasing to their families the corpses of Palestinians who had waged terrorist attacks, asking the International Monetary Fund to give a loan to the P.A. and signing a new trade agreement with the P.A.

“I hope the Palestinians have not made a final decision, ” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev. Israel, he noted, holds that the peace process is based on a 1993 letter from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, specifying that all disagreements will be solved through negotiation. “If the Palestinians try to use the unilateral path and go to the U.N…. we will consider it a violation of their most fundamental commitment,” Regev said. Israel, he added, “reserves the right to respond.”

To little avail, a minority of Israelis argue that the Palestinian U.N. move should be supported, not opposed. The danger of Israel turning into a binational state is real if the West Bank, with its large Arab population, continues to be settled, and if progress toward Palestinian statehood remains frozen, they say.

“A General Assembly resolution may be the last chance to establish a Palestinian state and turn the momentum around,” said Alon Liel, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “This is something that is existential for Israel. We cannot stay a Jewish state if we have one binational state. We can do so only if we divide into two separate entities.”

Contact Ben Lynfield at [email protected].


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