In about-face, Israel says it won’t cancel Oslo if Palestinians pursue UN bid

If Abbas unilaterally seeks statehood status, Jerusalem will weigh other punitive measures, senior official says

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leaves the podium after speaking during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 27, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Seth Wenig)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leaves the podium after speaking during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 27, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Seth Wenig)

Israel is backtracking on its threat to dismantle the Oslo Accords if the Palestinians go ahead with their attempt to upgrade their status at the United Nations later this week, a top diplomatic official said Tuesday in Jerusalem.

This position, expressed two days before the UN General Assembly was set to vote on the Palestinian Authority’s resolution, marks a remarkable alteration of Jerusalem’s previous stance.

“We won’t cancel any of our agreements,” the senior official said. However, the official said, Jerusalem still considers Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s unilateral step to seek nonmember state status at the UN a grave violation of agreements signed with Israel, and vowed that Israel would “respond accordingly.”

Despite heavy pressure from Jerusalem and Washington, Abbas is determined to put his bid for statehood to a vote at the UN General Assembly this Thursday. An overwhelming majority of the body’s 193 member states is expected to vote in favor of Abbas’s proposal, which would upgrade Palestine from an observer entity to a nonmember state, a development Israeli officials fear would have far-reaching negative implications for Israel.

On Tuesday, France became the first major European nation to sign on, bolstering the already sure-fire bid.

While Palestine would not have a vote in the General Assembly, it would hope to come under the aegis of the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, where it could mount legal challenges to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel will quietly await Thursday’s vote before deciding on sanctions, the official said. If the Palestinians go ahead with the vote on Thursday, Israel will consider a series of punitive steps, such as seeking to call in Palestinian debts, he added by way of example.

The notoriously cash-strapped PA owes the Israel Electric Corporation over NIS 700 million, or $175 million, he said.

It’s not clear what stands behind the change in the ministry’s policy. On Sunday, Haaretz reported that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ease up on punitive measures against the PA for the bid.

In the meantime, Israel is taking a low profile with regards to the Abbas’ statehood gambit. “We don’t have to be worried, and we will stay passive,” the official said. “When we choose to respond, we will carefully weigh our options. We will do everything we can that’s within Israeli law and within the framework of the agreements we signed with the Palestinians.”

Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

The official said the cabinet must approve the state’s response, hinting that Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman does not have Jerusalem’s backing to cancel the Oslo Accords. Just two weeks ago, Liberman threatened to topple Abbas’s government and cancel all or parts of the Oslo peace accords if the United Nations accepts Palestine as a nonmember state.

A draft position paper authored by Liberman’s office said that despite the risk of such a move, “removing Abbas from power would be the only option in such a scenario.”

According to the paper, any “softer” response would constitute an Israeli admission that it was unable to meet the challenge of the UN bid and would make a future negotiated agreement an impossibility.

“The Palestinian resolution is a clear violation of the fundamental principle of negotiations and is a violation of the agreements between Israel and the [Palestine Liberation Organization],” read another Foreign Ministry position paper, written by the head of the Foreign Ministry’s department for international organizations, Aharon Leshno-Yaar. “The adoption of the resolution will give Israel the right to re-evaluate previous agreements with the PLO and consider canceling them partially or completely, and would make progress in the peace process more difficult in the future.”

But speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the senior diplomatic official said there were several position papers being written by Foreign Ministry staff and that recommendations only become Israel’s official policy if the cabinet approved them. So far, the government has not decided on which sanctions to apply, the official added,but he pledged that Israel would not cancel any written agreements with the Palestinians.

“That they are bringing to the UN a unilateral resolution for statehood doesn’t bring us closer to an agreement — it actually moves us away from an agreement,” the official said. “The day after [the UN vote], the settlements [in the West Bank] will still be where they are right now.”

The PA scheduled its bid at the General Assembly for Thursday, the 65th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan, which in 1947 called for a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. November 29 is also the UN’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Last year, Abbas applied for full UN membership, which requires Security Council approval but the United States, which had veto power in that body made clear it would block the move. However, the Palestinians can easily secure a majority at the General Assembly that would grant them the status of a nonmember state, similar to the Vatican’s. A vast majority of countries — including many of Israel’s allies — have already said they would vote in favor of the resolution.

‘Most countries will be against us, but what kind of countries? Quality beats quantity’

The US and Canada are among the few countries that have stated clearly that they would vote against Abbas’s resolution. Australia and Germany reportedly lean toward abstaining, while other Western countries, including France, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal will likely vote in favor.

Even the UK, which until last week opposed the plan, is now reportedly considering voting in favor, provided that the Palestinians do not to attempt to bring charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Just last week, Foreign Secretary William Hague said London was against the Palestinians’ plan as it “would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian Authority.”

But Israel is not worried about the prospect of the world’s nations voting for a Palestinian state, the senior diplomatic official said. Most Western governments that support Abbas’s statehood bid have internal political motivations for doing so but are fully aware that a UN declaration is merely symbolic and does not advance the peace process.

“Most countries will be against us, but what kind of countries? Quality beats quantity. If the US, Canada and Germany vote with us, that’s good enough for us,” he said.

The resolution Abbas plans to submit would have the General Assembly vote “to accord to Palestine Nonmember Observer State status in the United Nations,” according to a draft obtained by The Times of Israel. The resolution “reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their State of Palestine on the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.” It also “expresses the hope that the Security Council will approve Palestine’s 2011 application for full membership.”

The draft also articulates “the urgent need for the resumption and acceleration of negotiations within the Middle East peace process… for the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides that resolves all outstanding core issues, namely the Palestine refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, borders, security and water.”

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