Abbas’s UN gambit: Capricious and possibly self-defeating

With resolution sure to be vetoed in current form, European diplomat calls it ‘a classic they-never-miss-an-opportunity-to-miss-an-opportunity situation’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after addressing the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 26, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. Clary)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after addressing the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 26, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

The Palestinian bid to attain statehood and a full Israeli withdrawal via the United Nations Security Council is, to put it politely, unpredictable and confusing. Less politely, it is capricious, ill-judged and could prove to be self-defeating.

It remains unclear exactly how and when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is going to proceed. On Monday, PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki vowed not to wait until after the Israeli election in March 2015 with a Security Council resolution demanding recognition for a Palestinian state and an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said this week the resolution will be ready for a vote “in the next few days,” while Jordan, which represents the Palestinians in the council, said it “will take time” before any draft comes to a vote.

Regardless of the timing, though, it appears that after all is said and done and the resolution is formally submitted and voted on, the Palestinian position on the international stage will not have improved significantly. Nor will the whole brouhaha have done much to pressure Israel into concessions.

Indeed, if the Palestinians go ahead and bring their resolution — which calls for an “end to the Israeli occupation” and the establishment of a “sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine” within one year — to a vote, they risk weakening their position in future diplomatic standoffs with Israel.

“This looks like a classic ‘The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’ situation,” a European official told The Times of Israel.

Even if the Palestinians wait until the New Year — when the Security Council will be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than in its present composition —  the draft resolution they have submitted will most likely not pass. True, after Angola, Malaysia and Venezuela replace Rwanda, South Korea and Argentina, respectively, the draft will probably get the nine yes votes required for a UNSC majority. But then it will most likely fall prey to an American veto.

‘The Palestinian text is absurd. It’s purely a Palestinian wishlist’

The draft as the Palestinians submitted it last Wednesday, via the Jordanians, is so far from the international consensus on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the Americans will have no choice but to veto it. The spokesperson of the US State Department, Jen Psaki, made plain last week that Washington will not support the draft as it currently reads. Even the French would not back this text, the European diplomat said.

“The Palestinian text is absurd,” the diplomat opined. “It’s purely a Palestinian wishlist — it doesn’t fly at all.”

France, Germany and Britain — the so-called E3 — offered to work with the Palestinians on a draft that would be acceptable to them and that could have ostensibly garnered American support as well. “The French,” who are leading the E3 effort, “wanted to give the Palestinians something, so they wrote a resolution that everyone could get on board with,” the diplomat said.

But the draft the Palestinians submitted last week is “very different” from the E3’s text, the diplomat noted.

While the Palestinians call for a “just, lasting and comprehensive peaceful solution” within 12 months, the E3 version speaks of 24 months. The Palestinians demand that a phased Israeli withdrawal be concluded by the end of 2017; the European draft gives no deadline. The E3 version further mentions that Palestine would be a “non-militarized state,” a provision absent from the Palestinian draft.

Most critically, the Palestinian text seeks a solution to the refugee question “on the basis of Arab Peace Initiative, international law and relevant United Nations resolutions, including resolution 194 (III).” This resolution, passed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, stipulates that all Palestinian refugees “wishing to return to their homes … should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

In contrast, the E3 draft envisages “an agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee question, including a viable mechanism to provide for reparation, resettlement, compensation and other agreed measures for a conclusive resolution.” The word “realistic” is key here. The Palestinian draft would allow millions of Palestinians to flood Israel — an absolute nonstarter. The E3 version, on the other hand, seems to accept the Israeli demand, shared by the international community, that the majority of refugees not be allowed to return to Israel. (Israel’s general position is that no refugees be given a “right of return.”)

The United Nations Security Council meeting on September 19, 2014. photo credit: US State Department)
The UN Security Council meeting on September 19, 2014. (photo credit: US State Department)

The Palestinians signaled readiness to discuss the wording of their draft, but even some fine-tuning will probably not be able to save it from an American veto. Had the Palestinians chosen to adopt the European text, they would have succeeded in enshrining the call for a speedy Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state in international law. Since they insisted on their own version, they will end up with nothing.

The Palestinians are well aware of that, Israeli and European officials said, but for internal political deliberations have decided to go ahead anyway. “They’re playing games with themselves; they don’t want to succeed,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They want to show their public that they are fighting for Palestinian principles.” Public opinion polls indicating Abbas’s current low approval rating also play a part in this démarche, the official added.

The Palestinian leadership’s only motivation for going to the Security Council with its draft and being vetoed by the US is the desire for a pretext to turn the International Criminal Court, a different official said.

If the UN bid fails, the Palestinians have repeatedly threatened, they will sign the Rome Statute and apply for membership in the ICC, where they can seek to sue Israel for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A Palestinian application to the ICC is a potent threat that has been hanging over Israel’s head like the sword of Damocles since November 2012, when “Palestine” was granted nonmember state status at the UN General Assembly. Jerusalem would go to some lengths to avoid the headlines and headaches that comes with such a lawsuit.

But officials in Jerusalem are not terribly worried about the “State of Palestine” actually joining the ICC. Being able to sue also means being able to be sued, and the Palestinians know they have a lot to lose if they choose to play this game. Furthermore, few Israeli policymakers fear an actual conviction at The Hague.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands (photo credit: Vincent van Zeijst/Wikimedia Commons/File)
The ICC headquarter in The Hague (photo credit: Vincent van Zeijst/Wikimedia Commons/File)

From an internal political perspective, it is understandable why Abbas would seek a showdown at the UN: Under pressure from both Hamas and the more moderate Palestinian public, he needs to demonstrate that he is doing something to advance independence and statehood.

But if one looks at it from an international angle, the Palestinians’ move appears self-defeating: their resolution, as it stands now, has virtually zero chance of being passed. And were the Palestinians to join the ICC (a process that is by no means guaranteed because it’s unclear whether the Palestinian “state” qualifies for membership), they would have lost an important threat used to intimidate Israel and gained nothing but the right to sue it.

Aware of the methods employed by Hamas and other terrorist groups which fire rockets indiscriminately at Israel, they may want to think twice before making use of this right. And even if they did proceed at the ICC, the path to an Israeli conviction in The Hague would be protracted and difficult. And it would also do nothing to bring the Palestinians closer to statehood.

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