U.N. bid finds Palestinian leadership between a rock and a hard place

The arguments for and against the latest Palestinian bid for statehood status at the United Nations come down to which is the faster path to irrelevancy.
November 13, 2012

The arguments for and against the latest Palestinian bid for statehood status at the United Nations come down to which is the faster path to irrelevancy.

The Palestine Liberation Organization is seeking a diplomatic victory to preserve the legitimacy of its affiliated Palestinian Authority in the face of a fiscal crisis and a resurgent Hamas. But any success at the United Nations is likely to trigger punitive measures by Israel and the United States that could exacerbate the PLO’s isolation.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “is at wit’s end,” said Nathan Brown,  a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University in Washington whose expertise is the Palestinians. “This is being driven by the absence of any viable alternative.”

The Palestinian Authority is hitting a dead end in setting up statehood infrastructure, Brown said.

“Building from the ground up has run its course,” he said. “This seems one of the few places he can still act.”

But the Palestinians' strategy is not without its drawbacks. The move is opposed by both the United States and Israel, where officials have warned of punitive measures should the Palestinians go ahead with the application.

Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli finance minister, has said he will stop transferring tax revenues to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority if the U.N. bid succeeds, while American lawmakers say it could jeopardize the millions in annual American aid to the Palestinian Authority. President Obama reiterated American opposition to the move in a call with Abbas on Sunday, the first since his re-election.

“This could be calamitous for the Palestinians themselves,” Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told JTA. “It would not get them closer to real statehood. It would create unrealistic expectations on the ground and it would call into question a number of agreements Israel has with the Palestinian Authority and not with the state of Palestine.”

Maen Areikat, the PLO envoy to Washington, said achieving statehood status would actually help preserve the two-state solution.

“In the face of the continued Israeli settlement activities and the confiscation of land, the chances of establishing a Palestinian state next to Israel are fading and the international community is not doing anything to hold Israel accountable, especially the United States,” Areikat told JTA.

The Palestinians have been down this road once before, but the current bid is more modest than last year's quest for full inclusion as a U.N. member state, which is subject to full Security Council approval. A draft now circulating grants the PLO non-member state observer status, defining Palestine as a state within the 1967 lines but not granting it full inclusion. The resolution needs only to be adopted by the larger General Assembly, where the Palestinians are believed to have a majority in their favor.

On Monday, Abbas said he would submit the bid on Nov. 29 — the 65th anniversary of the 1947 U.N. vote calling for two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in Palestine. Israel accepted the plan while the Palestinians and other Arabs rejected it, launching a war against the nascent Jewish state.

Areikat says that recognition would provide Palestinians the basis with which to return to talks, which they abandoned two years after Israel refused to freeze settlement building. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to return to talks without preconditions. Areikat said such calls are not substantive without an outline of an acceptable outcome for the Palestinians.

“We have an Israeli prime minister who for the last four years has been focused on Iran and not dealing with the Palestinians,” he said. “The aim is not to delegitimize Israel and end cooperation. On the contrary, after we get recognition within the 1967 borders, we are willing to engage the Israelis.”

Jewish groups active at the United Nations expect that a majority in favor of the Palestinians is practically guaranteed, but they have been seeking to blunt the effect of a statehood vote by lobbying European and Latin American nations to vote against it or abstain.

“It will send a message that the Palestinians do not enjoy a broader support much beyond Arab states and Muslim nations,” said Ken Bandler, the American Jewish Committee’s spokesman.

If the U.N. gambit is successful, it likely would lead to a freeze on some of the U.S. funds designated for the Palestinian Authority, which now receives more than $500 million in American assistance each year, suggested Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

“The Palestinian Authority’s ability to provide basic services is important to the goal of a Palestinian state living side by side with a state of Israel,” Lowey said. “But there's no doubt there will be consequences going forward.”

It would be especially difficult to make the case for such aid in the face of intensified rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on Israel in recent days, Lowey said.

“It is important to recognize that any discussion about the Palestinian Authority gaining observer status within the U.N. General Assembly is taking place within the context of over 100 rockets hitting Israel in the last three days,” she said. “The leaders have shown they're unable to stop terrorist attacks from Gaza.”

The threat from Gaza, ruled by the Hamas terrorist group, is precisely why cutting off the Palestinian Authority would be counterproductive, said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a group that has not endorsed the U.N. bids but opposes punitive measures.

“The West and Israel have to recognize that if their primary reaction is to take away more money from the Palestinians and make them suffer more, the direct beneficiaries will be a rising Hamas,” Ibish said.

Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, said that non-member observer status, unlike full membership, would not trigger laws mandating a cutoff in U.S. funds to the Palestinians or the United Nations. The question, she said, is whether Congress or the president will take steps to impose such consequences regardless.

“Congress could, of course, seek to change the law,” she said. “Likewise, the Obama administration could act on its own to exact retribution.

“However, with the 2012 elections behind it, the Obama administration has far more room to maneuver than it did in 2011, and will no doubt be aware that its reaction to this Palestinian effort will be widely interpreted as a signal of its policy direction for the coming four years.”

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