Russia says it backs Palestinian U.N. statehood bid

Russia will support the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations next week.

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, made the announcement Monday, saying Russia would vote in favor of the Palestinian state in the Security Council, where as a permanent member Russia holds a veto, and in the General Assembly, where a majority of states have already said they would support the bid.

“We will endorse any proposals submitted by the Palestinians,” Churkin reportedly said in a television interview, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Russia joins China, which also wields a veto in the Security Council, in its support of a Palestinian state. The United States has said it would use its veto to prevent Security Council action.

U.S. threatens to cut off Gaza aid

The U.S. State Department threatened to withdraw more than $100 million in aid to Gaza if Hamas leaders do not end demands to audit American charities working there.

The withdrawal, if enacted, would affect spending in Gaza on health care, agriculture and water infrastructure.

The State Department message, sent Thursday and reported by The New York Times, came after Hamas suspended operations of the International Medical Corps on Sunday for refusing to submit to an audit conducted by Hamas.

Hamas has increased surveillance over nongovernmental organizations for months now, causing rising tension. In June, Hamas demanded that groups allow its officials to audit their finances. United States policy, however, forbids direct contact between NGOs and groups labeled as terrorist by the State Department, as Hamas is, and would lead to an end to humanitarian aid.

In July, the Norweigan goverment sent Hamas a letter saying that if Hamas conducted an on-site audit, charities “might suspend their operations, which will affect significant parts of Gaza’s population.” It also said that Norway would hold Hamas responsible for aid withdrawal.

Taher al-Nounou, a spokesman for the Hamas goverment, rejected both warnings, saying: “These organizations do not recognize and do not want to recognize the Palestinian law. We do not kneel down to any threat. Any organization that wants to operate in the Palestinian territories must respect the laws.”

Israel considers options on Palestinian statehood bid

While U.S. officials are running a full-court diplomatic press against the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition of statehood this September and officials at international Jewish organizations are trying to convince foreign leaders to oppose statehood, the Israeli government appears to be taking a different approach: acceptance.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Knesset committee that there is no way to stop the U.N. General Assembly from recognizing Palestinian statehood.

“It would be possible to get a resolution that the world is flat” in the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu said in a jibe at the body, where anti-Israel resolutions have a virtual automatic majority. The Palestinians routinely have relied on the bloc of Arab and Muslims states and their allies in the non-aligned movement of mostly Third World countries to pass anti-Israel resolutions.

A senior Israeli official close to the prime minister said Israel is not particularly concerned about a vote for a Palestinian state in the General Assembly.

“We have very low expectations of the General Assembly,” he said. “Every year they pass at least 20 anti-Israel resolutions, including one condemning Israel for attacking the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.”

Rather, the Netanyahu administration is relying on the fact that General Assembly resolutions do not have international legal standing and that in the U.N. Security Council, where resolutions do carry the force of law, the United States would veto any such resolution.

But Israel remains concerned, the official said, that the Palestinians will use a General Assembly resolution to harden their positions against any compromise with Israel.

For now, Israeli officials are focusing on trying to limit the diplomatic damage that a General Assembly resolution could cause.

“The president of the General Assembly said that even if a resolution passes, this isn’t statehood,” said a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, who accompanied Netanyahu on his recent trip to Washington. “But there will be negative repercussions. Countries will certainly use it for anti-Israel propaganda. They may even try to take economic steps against Israel, like divestment.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has gone even further, warning of a “diplomatic tsunami” in September. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni recently attacked Netanyahu for failing to prevent the expected unilateral declaration of a state, saying he is a weak and inadequate leader.

“Netanyahu has failed to recruit international support for Israel’s basic principles,” Livni, the head of the Kadima Party, told the Knesset. “Israel needs a leader, and this government has missed an opportunity.”

During the previous Israeli government, when Ehud Olmert was the prime minister and Livni the foreign minister, she held many meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. According to recent statements by Olmert and Abbas, they made significant progress on the issue of the future of borders of a Palestinian state.

Most Israeli analysts say it is unlikely that peace talks will be renewed before September.

“I think Netanyahu knows that any political initiative for restarting peace talks is a non-starter and that the Palestinians have no intention of returning to negotiations,” said Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official and the editor of the joint Israeli-Palestinian website “His strategy is to hunker down and not to rock the boat.”

Israeli officials say their strategy to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians is the same as it always has been.

“The only way to achieve peace is through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told JTA in an interview. “There can be no outside imposed solution that will work. Everything else is at best a mirage, and a one-sided vote at the U.N. could well set back the peace process decades.”

There is growing concern in Israel that violence could return to the region after the Palestinian action at the United Nations in September, including a third intifada, or uprising. There have been campaigns online calling for a third intifada, including a page on Facebook that was removed by the social media company.

Former Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin, who retired this month, said he is “very worried” about what may happen after a unilateral Palestinian declaration and warned the situation could quickly deteriorate. A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 70 percent of the Jewish public in Israel expects a new wave of violence following September. A majority, 58 percent, believed that the Palestinian Authority would encourage the violence.

In recent weeks Palestinian groups have been using Facebook and other social media to call on Palestinians living in countries around Israel to reprise the marches on Israel’s borders that took place on May 15, when Arabs marked Nakba Day—the anniversary of the “catastrophe” of Israel’s birth. This time, Palestinians are calling for marches to mark the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank. That war began on June 5, 1967.

Israeli officials, who were caught unprepared when hundreds of Arabs from Syria breached the Israel-Syria border and thousands more marched on the Lebanon-Israel border two weeks ago, resulting in Israeli and Lebanese fire that left some 14 protesters dead, said they will be more prepared this time.

What are the options to derail Palestinian statehood at the U.N.?

Remember the tension a couple of weeks ago between Israel and the United States? That was all about avoiding tension between Israel and the rest of the world.

That’s what Obama administration officials are telling Jewish officials looking ahead to September, when the Palestinians are expected to press for statehood recognition through the U.N. General Assembly.

“There is a building momentum to move in September in New York to recognize a Palestinian state,” Dennis Ross, the top White House Middle East policy official, told Jewish leaders in a May 26 conference call. “The way you head that off is by showing a credible alternative.”

The thinking behind President Obama’s May 19 Middle East policy speech, in which the president said that it was U.S. policy to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, was to give the Obama administration needed ammunition to persuade the Europeans not to buy into recognition of Palestinian statehood, Ross said.

“The audience here was an international audience,” he said. “The choice was to stay where we were and the result would be dramatic or worse, or to try and get in front of that train and try to redirect it.”

The United States is working on several strategies to derail the Palestinian plan to obtain recognition of statehood at the United Nations.

First, there is the effort to convince European allies to vote against it, so the United States would have more partners voting against the bid in the Security Council and to establish a moral alliance—the Europeans are seen as a moral force in the international community—against unilateral statehood. Only votes in the Security Council, not the General Assembly, carry the force of international law.

Among the European Union’s leaders, Germany and Italy are committed against statehood recognition, but France and Britain are wavering.

German Chancellor “Angela Merkel shares the position of President Obama that only through negotiations will you get a stable situation and a two-state solution that is sustainable,” said Lars Hansel, the director of the Washington office of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German think tank. “She is not necessarily mainstream, since [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and [British Prime Minister David] Cameron have flirted with support for a Palestinian bid.”

But Obama’s speech may have nudged Britain and France away from recognizing a Palestinian state, according to a senior European official attending the G-8 summit last week in Deauville, France, where Obama consulted with the leaders on Middle East talks.

The official, who asked not to be named under his government’s rules of speaking to journalists, said follow-up is critical.

“Obama’s speech is considered important and courageous,” the official said. “We need now to try looking at concrete steps that could be implemented from now until September.”

European nations are seen as key. The combined opposition of the European Union’s 27 states and the influence they have among some developing world nations could help keep a resolution on Palestinian statehood from reaching the Security Council or from obtaining a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly.

Another option to derail statehood recognition would be to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

“The first thing that can happen is that there will be a political initiative, a diplomatic initiative on the part of the Israelis, despite Netanyahu’s rhetoric, that might be the basis for new negotiations,” Hansel said, noting support for an initiative from a diverse array of an Israeli parties, including those in the government, like Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor, and in the opposition, like Kadima.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to introduce any new initiative in his speech to Congress last week is a sign that nothing new is forthcoming.

Netanyahu had been under some pressure to make some sort of gesture until the the Palestinian Authority’s announcement a month ago that it was entering a unity pact with the terrorist group Hamas. That and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s steadfast refusal to negotiate with Israel has kept some of the pressure off Netanyahu.

Abbas has said he will not sit down and negotiate with Israel unless a Jewish settlement freeze in the West Bank is implemented first.

A third option for derailing statehood recognition at the United Nations would be to change the wording of the resolution so that it stops short of unilateral statehood—for instance, by conditioning recognition for Palestinian statehood on a negotiated outcome.

“The Security Council resolution could be worded in a way that even the Israelis can support it,” Hansel said.

Netanyahu has made clear that he is relying on a U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council to block Palestinian statehood.

“You need to pass it through the—not through the General Assembly, but through the Security Council, and then have it approved by the General Assembly,” he said in a CNN interview broadcast May 26. “I think that sequence is important because the United States has a veto in the Security Council.”

But Netanyahu’s sanguine approach ignores two factors, insiders warn. First, there’s the diplomatic damage that would accrue should the United States veto a widely popular resolution. That could affect Israel, the United States and any other countries voting against.

Then there is the possibility that the Palestinians and their supporters will use the rarely invoked Uniting for Peace option, which allows the General Assembly to override the Security Council with a two-thirds vote.

First used to override a Soviet veto against action during the Korean war, Uniting for Peace protects from legal repercussions those countries that join in an action not sanctioned by the Security Council. It was used in the 1980s to protect countries that sanctioned South Africa from being sued under international trade laws.

The option has been used just 10 times in the body’s history, but the Palestinians have indicated that they will seek its invocation. They have won recognition from 112 states and are working to get 135—the two-thirds majority—by September.

Joseph Deiss, the Swiss envoy to the United Nations and currently the president of the General Assembly, said over the weekend that the United Nations could not afford Palestine membership without Security Council approval.

That does not necessarily negate what would be the deleterious effects on Israel of a Uniting for Peace resolution recognizing Palestine, pro-Israel groups have said. The resolution would provide legal cover to nations wanting to treat “Palestine” as a state, allowing sanctions and lawsuits against Israel to go forward.

In his May 26 call with Jewish leaders, however, Ross made clear that the Europeans expect more from Netanyahu right now.

“One of the things we’re dealing with is that they don’t believe the prime minister of Israel is serious,” he said. “We say we don’t buy that, but that by itself has not been sufficient to persuade them.”

Clinton: Palestinian Relief Aimed at Statehood

The United States will use Palestinian emergency relief as a platform toward a two-state solution, Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

The U.S. secretary of state formally announced the U.S. contribution of $900 million at an international donors’ conference Monday in the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheik aimed at reconstructing Gaza.

Some 80 countries and international organizations are participating in the conference, which plans to raise at least $2.8 billion.

Clinton said she saw the initiative, in the wake of Gaza’s devastation after its Hamas overlords launched a war against Israel, as having short-term and long-term goals.

“It is not enough just to respond to the immediate needs of the Palestinian people,” she said. “Our response to today’s crisis in Gaza cannot be separated from our broader efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace. Only by acting now can we turn this crisis into an opportunity that moves us closer to our shared goals.”

Clinton emphasized that the partner in this effort was the moderate Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Hamas drove out Abbas loyalists in a bloody coup in the summer of 2007. Hamas was not invited to the conference, according to reports.

“They are offering their people the option of a peaceful, independent and more prosperous future, not the violence and false choices of extremists whose tactics—including rocket attacks that continue to this day—only will lead to more hardship and suffering,” Clinton said. “These attacks must stop.”

Clinton added that the U.S. assistance had been “designed in coordination” with the P.A. government.

“We have worked with the Palestinian Authority to install safeguards that will ensure that our funding is only used where, and for whom, it is
intended and does not end up in the wrong hands,” she said.

Also at the conference, Clinton said she was not optimistic that Iran would respond positively to a U.S. offer of engagement.

“We’re under no illusions; our eyes are wide open,” she told United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan about the prospect ofdirect talks with Iran, according to an account from a senior State Department official provided to The New York Times.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened the conference by stating that his country’s main priority is helping Israel and the Palestinians reach a truce. He also called on the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas to form a unity government. Abbas told the donor countries that they must urge Israel’s new government to commit to a two-state solution and respect agreements signed by previous

French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Palestinians to back Abbas and proposed a summit to revive peace in theMiddle East to be held in Europe this spring. Sarkozy has notably negotiated for peace in the region through his working relationship with leaders close to Hamas, such as Syria’s Bashar Assad.

To “countries who have links to Hamas,” Sarkozy warned, “you have a particular responsibility to demand that Hamas join President Abbas, whose path toward peace is the only one that will produce results,” reported Reuters.

The Arafat Factor

According to a poll released last week by Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Arab American Institute (AAI), U.S. Jews continue to support an active Mideast peace process and a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, despite two years of horrific terrorism and the bitter disappointment of a peace process turned sour.

The poll showed that a majority of Arab-Americans hold similar views, leading to suggestions by the two groups that U.S. attitudes about peace can be "exported" to a region that has known nothing but war.

But it’s what the poll didn’t ask that represents the wild card for pro-peace process groups: what about Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who still seems to think suicide bombers and rampaging gunmen are legitimate instruments of negotiation?

That dichotomy — strong ongoing support for the idea of a negotiated settlement resulting in Palestinian statehood but overwhelming distrust of the current Palestinian leadership — also defines the problem facing Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister in the Jan. 28 Israeli election.

Amazingly, terror-battered Israelis still tell pollsters they want a negotiated settlement. However, Mitzna will have a hard time explaining how to reach a settlement while a treacherous Arafat still calls the shots in Ramallah.

Last week’s numbers, compiled by pollster John Zogby, were striking, if incomplete. Of the U.S. Jews polled, 85 percent agreed that "Palestinians have a right to live in a secure and independent state of their own"; 95 percent of the Arab Americans said Israelis have the same right.

Add some details and the margins shrink, although the numbers still show a surprisingly durable belief in political negotiations.

A slim majority of Jews — 52 percent — said they would support "a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that included the establishment of an independent, secure Palestinian state alongside an independent, secure Israeli state; the evacuation of most settlements from the West Bank and Gaza; the establishment of a border roughly along the June 4, 1967, border; a Palestinian right of return only to a new Palestinian state, and establishing Jerusalem as the shared capital of both countries."

Thirty percent of the Jews opposed that proposition; 18 percent said they were "not sure." The poll also found 41 percent of the Jews blamed "mostly the Palestinians" for the breakdown in peace negotiations, but even more — 42 percent — blamed "both sides."

The poll revealed something else: An overwhelming proportion of U.S. Jews are pessimistic about Middle East peace — about 75 percent — and that pessimism points right back to the missing presence in the survey — Arafat.

Zogby, AAI’s president, said the pollsters wanted to avoid questions that would provoke hot-button responses. Presumably that also explains why Ariel Sharon, a reviled symbol to many Palestinians and their supporters, was omitted from survey questions.

However, Arafat’s negative impact on Jewish public opinion cannot be overestimated. Many of the same U.S. Jews, who strongly support the idea of resumed negotiations and even back creation of a Palestinian state, no longer have any hope that Arafat is willing or able to cut a deal that would guarantee Israel’s security.

APN hopes that its poll will help pro-peace groups gain traction with a Jewish public soured by the collapse of the Oslo process and the new, deadlier surge of Palestinian terrorism. However, the Arafat factor could be a major impediment. Peace groups that are perceived as advocating a return to Oslo-style negotiations with Arafat will not rally centrist U.S. Jews to their cause, despite strong underlying support for the idea of resumed negotiations.

The same dynamic will probably hold in the Israeli election. There is continuing support among voters for a return to negotiations and even for Palestinian statehood. However, throw Arafat into the mix and that support plummets. If Mitzna is seen as seeking a renewed embrace of Arafat, Israeli voters are likely to reject him in overwhelming numbers. And he won’t do any better if he moves to the right and offers voters a "Likud-light" platform.

To a considerable degree, Mitzna’s candidacy is hostage to Arafat; so is a struggling peace movement in this country that has strongly condemned the wave of Palestinian terror, but which has been unable to jettison its attachment to the embattled Palestinian leader as a legitimate peace partner.

Around Town

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came to town this week, seeking Washington’s blessing for Palestinian statehood in return for postponing a unilateral declaration on May 4, when the interim Oslo period expires.

Despite the fears of some Jewish leaders, he didn’t get it; instead, he simply came away with new assurances of U.S. friendship and a promise by the Clinton administration to accelerate mediation of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks after the May 17 elections in Israel.

A noncommittal Arafat refused to say much about his one-hour session with President Clinton or his plans for May 4; an administration official, briefing reporters, said that U.S. policy, which regards statehood as a matter to be decided as part of the final-status talks, remains unchanged.

The unlucky Arafat, whose visit to Washington last year came on the day the White House sex scandal exploded across the nation’s front pages, once again saw his arrival buried under a avalanche of other news.

On Tuesday, as the Palestinian leader was shuttling between Capitol Hill and the White House, officials and reporters alike were focused on the frantic effort to break the negotiating deadlock in Kosovo and, when that failed, to prepare the American people for NATO action against the Serbs.

Arafat was trailed by a crowd of Mideast reporters, but the real action centered on the impending showdown with Serbia.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin indicated that Arafat’s meetings went about as most observers had predicted. He restated that the United States opposes any unilateral actions by either side, and added that “we would like the permanent-status negotiations to be resumed as soon as possible, move ahead on an accelerated basis. We don’t think they should be open-ended.”

But he refused to be pinned down on a deadline for completion of the final-status talks — which were due to be completed by May 4, but which have, in fact, not seriously started.

Administration officials say that they may set tentative target dates for completion of the final-status talks, but reject the notion of a hard-and-fast deadline.

That formula — greater U.S. activity on the peace process after the Israeli elections and speeded-up final-status talks, the forum originally conceived to consider the nature of the Palestinian entity as well as issues such as Jerusalem, water and refugees — was the best deal Arafat could get this week, according to Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The administration was simply never prepared to mention ‘statehood’ in any positive way for obvious reasons,” she said, referring to pressure from the pro-Israel community.

After the White House session, Arafat refused to provide details about his meetings or his statehood plans, saying only that he was engaged in a series of international “consultations” on the May 4 deadline.

“I listened very carefully to the valuable advice and opinions of President Clinton,” he told reporters. “The most important thing that came out of the meeting…is that despite all the difficulties we face today, President Clinton has shown me the determination to move forward in the peace process.”

Palestinian officials reiterated that the impending deadline, set by Oslo, has taken on enormous meaning in Gaza and the West Bank, and that the date couldn’t simply pass with no tangible signs of progress.

David Kimche, a former division head of the Mossad, said: “I see very little danger that he will actually declare a state on May 4; he would be crazy to do so. But some politicians are trying to create a frantic reaction by saying he will.”

Kimche, now on the advisory council of the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum, said that it’s not enough to simply reject any suggestion of statehood.

“You can either say Arafat is the enemy and we have to bludgeon him until he comes back on his hands and knees — or we have to say he was our enemy, but he’s our partner now and we have to work together and try to give him something positive,” said Kimche.

The administration was right to restate its opposition to a unilateral declaration, he said.

“At the same time, it’s important to include a positive message, to make it clear that they would be supportive of a Palestinian state that came into being through negotiations with Israel,” he said. “That’s the kind of message Arafat needed to come back with, and it would be completely in compliance with Israel’s interests.”