The US made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to convince the Palestinian Authority to pull back from a statehood gambit at the United Nations, sending two senior envoys to meet with PA head Mahmoud Abbas in New York.
By all accounts, though, the Palestinians remain committed to asking for world body for nonmember state status on Thursday, and have gained powerful European support as a bulwark against any Israeli reprisals for the move.
The US deputy secretary of state, William Burns, met with Abbas in New York on Wednesday, asking Abbas again to drop the idea and promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. Abbas told Burns it was too late.
“We’ve been clear, we’ve been consistent with the Palestinians that we oppose observer state status in the General Assembly and this resolution. We made those points again. And the deputy secretary also reiterated that no one should be under any illusion that this resolution is going to produce the results that the Palestinians claim to seek, namely to have their own state living in peace next to Israel,” Secretary of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters Wednesday. “We went up to make one more try to make our views known to President Abbas and to urge him to reconsider.”
The US and Israel have led opposition to the statehood bid, though the move has wide support in the United Nations General Assembly, with some 130 nations expected to vote yes on the matter. On Tuesday France said it would support the move, joining Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland and a host of other countries.
On Wednesday, Palestine Liberation Organization senior official Hanan Ashrawi told a press conference that the Palestinians would go ahead with the move no matter the pressure, which she characterized as “blackmail.”
“Some rights aren’t for sale,” Ashrawi said. “If Israel wants to destabilize the whole region, it can. We are talking to the Arab World about their support if Israel responds with financial measures, and the EU has indicated they will not stop their support to us.”
Ashrawi urged the US to at least abstain, saying that voting no “would be seen as being really pathetic by the rest of the world” and hurt American interests in the Middle East.
However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday told reporters the US believes the Palestinians are going in the wrong direction to reach their goals.
Clinton stressed that the “path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York.”
On Tuesday, a senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem said Israel would not seek to cancel the Oslo peace accords as a punitive measure against the application to the UN, but it may still look to impose financial levies, such as collecting on a NIS 700 million debt the PA owes the Israel Electric Corporation.
Nuland said Congress may also impose financial penalties on the PA for the move.
“This resolution is not going to take them closer to statehood. It does nothing to get them closer to statehood, and it may actually make the environment more difficult,” she said. “We’ve been clear all along with the Palestinians that we are seeking to get money for the Palestinian Authority released from the Congress, but that these kinds of things don’t make it easier, and that members of Congress are watching very closely.”
Return to talks?
The Palestinians say they need UN recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967, to be able to resume negotiations with Israel.
Israel argues that Abbas is trying to dictate the outcome of border talks by going to the UN, though the recognition request presented to the world body calls for a quick resumption of negotiations on all core issues of the conflict, including borders.
It’s not clear if negotiations could resume even if Obama, freed from the constraints of his re-election campaign, can turn his attention to the Mideast conflict.
Abbas aides have given conflicting accounts of whether Abbas, once armed with global backing for the 1967 borders, will return to negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze.
Israel has said it is willing to resume talks without preconditions.
Government spokesman Mark Regev affirmed the position on Wednesday. Regev said that by going to the UN, the Palestinians violate “both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations.”
Palestinian officials countered that their historic UN bid is meant to salvage a peace deal they say is being sabotaged by Israeli settlement expansion. “It is a last-ditch effort because we believe the two-state solution is in jeopardy as a result of these actions,” Ashrawi said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that “in the long term, this region can only find peace through negotiations to resolve the Middle East conflict,” but she did not say whether her country would abstain or vote against.
“Nothing will really be gained either by unilateral Palestinian initiatives at the United Nations which aim for recognition nor by Israel’s continued building of settlements,” she said.
Other than creating leverage in negotiations, UN recognition would also allow the Palestinians to seek membership in UN agencies and international bodies, for example making them eligible for loans from the International Monetary Fund.
Perhaps most significantly, it could open the door to a new attempt to join the International Criminal Court and seek an investigation into alleged war crimes by Israel in the territories.
Abbas’s self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority, unilaterally recognized the court’s jurisdiction in 2009 and pressed prosecutors to open an investigation into Israel’s previous Gaza offensive. Prosecutors noted at the time that the court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, is only open to states. Israel has not signed the statute and does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
Ashrawi on Wednesday avoided explicit threats to take Israel to court, but suggested it’s an option. “If Israel refrains from settlement activities … there is no immediate pressing need to go,” she said, adding that this could change if “Israel persists in its violations.”
On Tuesday, a Palestinian official said the PA may try to take Israel to the ICC if a probe into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat finds he was poisoned.
Israel would respond “forcefully” if the Palestinians try to pursue war crimes charges against Israel at the ICC, said an Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss policy considerations. If the Palestinians use their upgraded international status “as a tool to confront Israel in the international arena, there will be a response,” he said.
Until then, he said, Israel will be bound by its obligations to the Palestinians under existing peace agreements, but won’t necessarily go beyond them.
Mixed reactions in the West Bank
In the West Bank, the view of Abbas’ quest for recognition was mixed. Many were bitter, saying they’ve heard too many promises that statehood is near and don’t believe a nod from the UN will make a difference.
“Nothing will come of it,” said Arwa Abu Helo, a 23-year-old student in Ramallah. “It’s just a way of misleading the public.”
Yousef Mohammed, a bank teller, said Abbas was trying to “gain the spotlight after Hamas said it won in Gaza.”
Hurriyeh Abdel Karim, 65, said she was willing to give Abbas a chance. “If he succeeds, maybe our life improves,” she said.