RAMALLAH, West Bank — At this week’s annual top-level UN General Assembly meetings, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is honoring a promise to the US to suspend a Palestinian quest for further UN recognition.
But Palestinians have made clear that the strategy is not off the table, particularly if negotiations with Israel on Palestinian statehood don’t produce an agreement by April, the target proposed by Washington.
A poll published Monday indicates overwhelming support among Palestinians for the most dramatic element of the “international strategy” — bringing up Israel on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court in connection with Israel’s continued settlement-building on war-won lands that the Palestinians want for their state.
For now, Abbas will stick to his promise to US Secretary of State John Kerry, who prodded Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations in late July, after a three-year break. “We will not apply for any agency of the United Nations this time,” Riad Mansour, the head of the Palestinian mission at the UN, said of the General Assembly meetings that began Monday.
This year’s UN diplomacy is likely to be dominated by Syria’s civil war and Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions. Abbas is addressing the plenum Thursday and is to meet a series of leaders, including President Barack Obama, on Tuesday. He is also set to talk with Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A year ago, Abbas used the General Assembly gathering to lobby for recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state at the UN. Two months later, the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the request, affording the status of nonmember observer state to Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — lands Israel captured by 1967 — by a vote of 138-9, with 41 abstentions.
Israel and the US objected, arguing that such recognition harms attempts to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood in Israeli-Palestinian talks, with US mediation. Talks between Abbas and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had broken down in 2008, and Abbas and Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to find sufficient common ground.
Abbas has said UN recognition is not a bypass to negotiations, but meant to improve Palestinian leverage in the lopsided relationship between occupier and occupied. Palestinians say that in affirming the 1967 frontier, the UN helped counter Israeli attempts to blur that line through massive settlement building. More than a half-million Israelis now live on war-won lands, complicating any effort to partition the territory under a future peace deal.
Palestinians resumed talks with Israel in July despite low expectations, and without getting Israel to freeze settlement-building first. Yet Abbas could not afford to rebuff Obama at the time by saying no. Israel’s promise to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners over the course of the talks also helped bring Abbas back to the table.
Abbas, in turn, promised to suspend his UN strategy, which Israel fears will heighten its diplomatic isolation. As part of that strategy, the Palestinians would seek membership in a number of UN agencies. The most dramatic step would be to seek action by the International Criminal Court, though Abbas hasn’t yet given the green light.
The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research said 60 percent of Palestinians back Abbas’ decision to refrain from seeking membership in UN agencies for the duration of negotiations with Israel, in return for the release of prisoners.
However, 67 percent support going to the ICC immediately, even if it means prisoners won’t be released or Israel retaliates with financial sanctions, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki.
He said the ICC option is popular because a majority of Palestinians don’t have faith in negotiations but also oppose a return to violence. “People want revenge because they see Israel is getting away with … the theft of their land, confiscation of their property, bringing in settlers … and they feel there’s absolutely nothing they are able to do against it,” Shikaki added.
The survey was conducted September 19-21 among 1,261 respondents, with an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Political analyst Majed Swailem said Abbas is unlikely to abandon the UN strategy, despite the current suspension.
“The UN is the only strategy for Abbas, in case the current round of negotiations fails, as is expected,” Swailem said. “By the end of the assigned nine months, he can’t continue talking without any result and, of course, will return to the UN”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.