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Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour addresses the United Nations Security Council, at UN headquarters, January 22, 2019. (AP/Richard Drew)
Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour addresses the United Nations Security Council, at UN headquarters, January 22, 2019. (AP/Richard Drew)
Interview'Without a political horizon, the situation will explode'

Frustrated with US, but reluctant to fight, PA envoy looks elsewhere for help

Ramallah’s man in New York, UN ambassador Riyad Mansour, tells ToI he appreciates what Biden administration has done but recognizes that Washington won’t push Jerusalem into talks

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

NEW YORK — The Palestinian Authority finds itself in a precarious position vis-à-vis the new American administration.

On the one hand, US President Joe Biden has delivered on promises to renew relations with the PA and to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in aid cut by his predecessor Donald Trump. However, the White House has increasingly adopted a key Israeli talking point regarding the conflict and is describing it as unsolvable in the foreseeable future, much to the ire of a weakened Ramallah, which may not be able to withstand an indefinite period of waiting for peace to ripen.

While Palestinian frustration is growing over Washington’s lack of enthusiasm for expending political capital on advancing a two-state solution, the PA does not appear to have the luxury of again going to war with Washington after doing so under Trump. Ramallah is suffering from a financial emergency that has metastasized into a broader political legitimacy crisis, as international patience thins due to another indefinitely delayed parliamentary election and a brutal crackdown on civilian critics.

As a result, the PA is walking a fine line, trying to press its claims while steering clear of angering the Biden administration, whose support is critical at this time of need. At the same time, Ramallah is looking for other world powers to pick up the mediator mantle seemingly cast aside by Washington, to keep ever-dimming hopes of political sovereignty alive.

This is the dilemma and corresponding solution presented by Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“We’re trying to avoid having confrontations with the US administration,” Mansour said late last month. “We’re being patient as we see them implementing certain promises. Still, they’re moving very slowly on some things and not moving at all on others.”

US Vice President Joe Biden (right) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 9, 2016. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Mansour is the most senior Palestinian official operating on US soil after the Trump administration shuttered the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington in 2019, and he also enjoys a direct line to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who views the seasoned UN envoy as a confidant.

At times during the hour-long conversation at a café across the street from UN headquarters, Mansour made a point of showing his appreciation for the steps taken by the Biden administration to warm ties with Ramallah, knowing that Washington would prefer to focus on other matters. But underneath the praise appeared to be rising frustration with the only slightly improved status enjoyed by Ramallah.

“The Biden administration has been very involved at the humanitarian level and say that they support political negotiations as well, but that now is not the time,” Mansour lamented, speaking in English. “It’s been eight months, though [since Biden took office.] If now is not the time, then when? Is it after nine months? Is it after 10 months?”

“This is why we need a collective approach, which starts with convening the [Middle East] Quartet at the ministerial level. We want the US to be a player, but it cannot be the only player,” he added, referring to the long dormant four-member body comprising the US, Russia, the EU and the UN established in 2002 to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. (During the Obama administration, when president Barack Obama secured an agreement by then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction for 10 months, Abbas nonetheless stayed away from the negotiating table for the first nine, and the US-brokered effort foundered.)

Mansour, who rarely grants interviews to Israeli news outlets, said he has been using his platform at the UN to lobby for the proposal and that relevant players are warming to the idea.

Israel is another story, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett telling anyone who asks that he has no intention of entering political negotiations with the PA. But Mansour maintained that if the Quartet calls on the parties to enter talks, “it would be difficult for Israel not to go along with it.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry (second from the left) talks during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) and other members of the the Quartet on the Middle East on the third day of the 51st Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 8, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Pool/ Jim Watson)

Giving credit where credit is due

The PA ambassador spoke shortly after the UN’s annual General Assembly, where he met with visiting heads of state and top diplomats from around the world. Ramallah wanted to include Biden among those sit-downs, and Abbas was prepared to fly to New York for the occasion. However, the US declined the proposal, limiting to three the number of bilateral meetings the president had with other world leaders on the sidelines of the UN, a Palestinian source familiar with the matter told ToI.

Mansour said Abbas and Biden would meet “when the appropriate moment presents itself.”

Asked whether the PA is disappointed with Biden’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians thus far, Mansour started off diplomatically.

“If I want to look at the picture objectively, he inherited from the Trump administration a tremendous amount of problems — COVID, the economy, the international arena, climate change — all these things. So for that administration to deliver during the first 100 days the things that they delivered to us… one should give them some credit for doing so,” he said.

Mansour pointed to the nearly $400 million in aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, that Biden has resumed in addition to other humanitarian aid for Gaza and the West Bank, along with millions of COVID-19 vaccines and funding for hospitals in East Jerusalem.

“Is that sufficient? Of course it’s not, but they are working on other things,” he said, citing Biden’s pledge to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem that historically served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by Trump in 2019.

The Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, November 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Bennett has pushed back against the plan, arguing that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital exclusively, but US officials say they intend to move forward with it nonetheless, possibly by the end of the year. Mansour called the consulate reopening “a done deal.”

‘Eventually, it’ll explode’

As for Biden’s pledge to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic office in Washington, closed by Trump in 2018, Mansour acknowledged that doing so would be “more complicated” due to laws passed by Congress, including legislation that bars PA diplomatic activity on US soil so long as it continues its welfare policy that includes payments to security prisoners who killed Israelis and to the families of slain attackers.

The ambassador said Ramallah is in talks with Washington to alter the stipend policy, but still defended the payments, arguing that all national liberation movements have prisoners who must be cared for along with their families. Critics have dubbed it a “pay to slay” policy that encourages Palestinian terrorism.

“In the United States of America, if you commit the most heinous of crimes and you go to jail, your family [can collect] social security and food stamps. Society has responsibility for those people,” Mansour added.

Ramallah is also pushing the Biden administration to scrap 1987 legislation classifying the PLO and its affiliates as terror organizations. The law required US presidents to sign a waiver every six months in order to keep the PLO office open. “President Abbas is saying, ‘I’m not going to reopen an office if the waiver policy remains. I want you to remove these things from the books,'” explained Mansour.

He noted that Israel recognized the PLO in the 1993 Oslo Accords, while the US still upholds legislation classifying the body as a terror organization.

“They are more royalist than the king. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t think the Jewish American community is for this. It’s just some extreme elements within Congress that are pushing it,” Mansour argued.

Neighbors gather in a clearing strewn with debris from an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, May 26, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

While he expressed satisfaction with the steps Biden has taken thus far, he lamented the lack of measures to advance a political resolution to the conflict. He speculated that the administration was holding off on pressing Israel’s government in order to keep it intact long enough to pass a budget. But he argued that making the preservation of Bennett’s fragile coalition the guiding star of Biden’s policies was a mistake.

“The US will always have [that excuse,], but the world is afraid that if we do not begin the process of creating a political horizon, the situation is going to explode again,” he said.

“May was an example of this,” he said, referring to the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, which saw thousands of rockets fired into Israel from Gaza, a forceful Israeli military response, and violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and even inside Israel proper. “It revealed so many dynamics that would lead any reasonable person to reach the conclusion that there is a limit to how much you can keep frustration at bay.”

The war also saw the Biden administration take an unequivocal stance in support of Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza in response to the rocket fire by Hamas and other terror groups. Washington avoided calling publicly for a ceasefire until the final day of the war and blocked several statements advanced by all 14 other members of the UN Security Council calling for an end to the fighting.

Illustrative: Members of the United Nations Security Council, with visiting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, convene a meeting on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, February 26, 2020, at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/ Bebeto Matthews)

Asked why his mission has not done more to advance resolutions against Israel at the Security Council as had been the case during the Trump administration, Mansour replied that the PA was trying to “return to a professional relationship” with Biden’s team.

“If they are not ready to adopt positions in the Security Council, then it will not serve any purpose to go and fight,” he said. During the recent Gaza war, “we tried our best. But they kept saying ‘no, no, no,'” Mansour said. He still gave credit, however, to Biden’s efforts to promote the Egyptian ceasefire, which ended the war 40 days earlier than the previous round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in 2014.

‘We come from the same school’

The Palestinian ambassador had warm words for his American counterpart at the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

“Although her background is in African affairs, she is from Louisiana and knows the civil rights issue well,” Mansour said, recalling his own activism as a college student in the 1970s.

Mansour, 74, spent most of his life in the US, growing up in Ohio with his father as Palestinian refugees.

In addition to leading student protests against Israel’s takeover of the West Bank after it captured the area in the 1967 Six Day War, he demonstrated against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. He also led a demonstration against a speech at Kent State University by Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who was active then at the deeply segregated Louisiana State University, where Thomas-Greenfield was one of the few Black students.

Thomas-Greenfield “is from the same school,” Mansour said, speaking figuratively.

“She promised to run certain proposals of ours by leaders in Washington, like with regard to the Quartet meeting. She sees merit in this idea,” he said.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters during a news conference at United Nations headquarters, on March 1, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

The US mission to the UN did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Mansour entered the Palestinian foreign service in the early 1980s, serving as deputy head of the PLO’s mission to the UN. He took a break from diplomatic life in 1994 for stints in academia and the business world before returning to New York as head of the Palestinian mission in 2005. He has remained in New York ever since, leading the mission’s successful effort to obtain “nonmember observer state status” at the UN.

Mansour welcomed the Biden administration’s plans to return to UN bodies that Trump withdrew from, including the Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization. He also speculated that the US would return to the Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “Doing so would mean them swallowing the fact that we are members there.”

Biden has yet to announce any plan to rejoin UNESCO, though.

“The US has opposed us joining international organizations as a state, but I believe this is behind us, and one cannot reverse the process,” Mansour said. “What’s left is for the Biden administration to cease its Security Council blockage of our recognition [as a full-member state]. Doing so would be consistent with their support for the two-state solution.”

“We talk about these things [with the Americans], but they are not there yet,” Mansour admitted.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are advocating for an official Security Council delegation to visit Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Mansour said both Thomas-Greenfield and her predecessor, Trump envoy Kelly Craft, are in favor of the idea, but that the Israeli government, which accuses the UN of institutional bias, is not interested in such a trip.

Kuwait’s Ambassador to the United Nations Mansour Al-Otaibi, left, talks to Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations Riyad Mansour at the start of a UN Security Council meeting, May 15, 2018 in New York. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

The Israeli UN Mission did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

“There is a strong feeling within the Security Council, which deals with this issue on a monthly basis, in favor of coming to see it with their own eyes,” he said.

As for the PA’s efforts to coax the Quartet into resuming its efforts on the conflict, Mansour said the international body’s reconvening was only a matter of time.

“Reviving the role of the Quartet would signal that the US [as a member] is prepared to be politically involved in this issue and not just at the humanitarian level,” he claimed.

“Biden should welcome this,” Mansour said, pointing to the president’s speech at the UN General Assembly days earlier in which he called for collective responses to global problems.

Calling on the international community to step up

Asked what the Quartet’s involvement might look like, the Palestinian envoy speculated that the body could call on Israel and the PA to enter negotiations within two to three months or authorize the Security Council to adopt a resolution to that effect. “That would carry significant weight,” Mansour said.

“Key elements in the Security Council and the Quartet are calling for this. The Americans are the only ones keeping their cards close to their chests, but eventually they’ll have to go that route,” the ambassador surmised.

Outside of the Security Council, Mansour downplayed talk of rifts between his office and the missions of the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, whose governments normalized relations with Israel in the past year — in a process publicly castigated by the PA as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

“They are my colleagues and we meet regularly,” he said, pointing to their support for resolutions to promote the Palestinian national cause, which the Arab League passed unanimously in Cairo earlier this year.

UN Ambassadors from Israel Gilad Erdan, from the UAE Lana Nusseibah, from the US Linda Thomas-Greenfield, from Morocco Omar Hilale, and from Bahrain Jamal Al Rowaiei at a New York event marking the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, September 13, 2021. (Jacob Magid/ Times of Israel)

The Abraham Accords members have insisted that their warming of ties with Israel does not come at the expense of their support for the Palestinians or the two-state solution, and that their new contacts in Jerusalem enable them to better advocate for the Palestinian cause. The Israel-UAE accord required Israel to indefinitely suspend plans for unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank.

“We are asking everyone to pressure Israel to stop all of these violations against our people and to begin the process of negotiation to end the occupation and to have a peaceful solution on the ground,” he said, though he admitted that steps toward that end by Israel’s newest Arab allies have been limited.

“They see the Security Council is not acting. That’s the problem that we have with the international community that it is allowing Israel the impunity to continue doing what it is doing,” he argued. “Once the international community, especially the United States, says ‘enough is enough: Settlement is illegal you have to stop it’… you will see a different behavior from Israel. But if the United States, in particular, is looking the other way, then Israel will continue in this illegal path, which is tragic and painful.”

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