In possible hint at new international bid, Abbas vows to use ‘soft diplomacy’

PA president expresses frustration about recent Israeli decisions, including move to withhold tax funds from Ramallah over its payments to families of attackers

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaking at an Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner on January 6, 2020, in Bethlehem. (Credit: Wafa)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaking at an Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner on January 6, 2020, in Bethlehem. (Credit: Wafa)

In a possible reference to a new effort to join international organizations and agreements, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas vowed on Monday to employ “soft diplomacy.”

He made the comment at an Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner in Bethlehem, which was attended by Christian leaders and Palestinian officials, after expressing frustration about recent Israeli government decisions.

“We will not use force, violence or terrorism but rather soft diplomacy as we have done for more than the past decade,” Abbas said, according to the official PA news site Wafa.

“We are able to use it to achieve our goals but it may have difficult consequences — we will endure them because we no longer can endure what Israel is doing,” the PA news site quoted him as saying.

The transcript of Abbas’s comments posted on Wafa did not specify what Abbas was explicitly referring to as “soft diplomacy.”

But Ahmad Majdalani, a PA minister and Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member, told The Times of Israel that he believed Abbas’s comments were alluding to the possibility of the Palestinians joining new international organizations and agreements.

Supporters of the Palestinian Fatah movement take part in a rally marking the 55th foundation anniversary of the political party, in Gaza City on January 1, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

In the past decade, the Palestinians have joined several international organizations and treaties, including UN agencies, when their relations with Israel or the US have deteriorated.

The US government has long asked the Palestinians not to join UN agencies because American law requires it to cut off funding to any UN organization that grants the Palestinians full membership.

“No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states,” one US law passed in 1990 reads.

The US government must cease its funding to any UN agency that grants full membership to any group that does not have “internationally recognized attributes of statehood,” another law passed in 1994 says.

The US does not recognize “the State of Palestine.”

Israel maintains that Palestinian efforts to gain membership in international organizations and agreements constitute unilateral measures aimed at achieving statehood while bypassing peace negotiations and undermining the Jewish state’s standing in the international community.

The Palestinians argue that joining them contributes to what they describe as their efforts to build an independent Palestinian state with institutions that measure up to international standards.

During his speech, Abbas expressed his dissatisfaction with several recent Israeli government decisions, including Israel’s announcement last week that it would withhold around NIS 149 million ($43 million) in tax funds from the PA that it collects on its behalf.

Israel started to implement a new law in February 2019 that allows it to withhold the taxes that it gathers for the PA equivalent to the amount Israeli officials determine the Palestinians pay security prisoners and their families, as well as wounded attackers and the families of dead attackers.

In February, Israel said it would deduct approximately NIS 500 million ($144,578,030) from the tax transfers to the PA spread out over 12 months for its stipends to security prisoners, many of them convicted terrorists, and their families. At the time, Israeli authorities made no mention of funds they planned to withhold from the Palestinians for the salaries they give wounded attackers and the families of dead ones.

Last week’s announcement aimed to enforce the part of the law that Israel failed to implement earlier in 2019, according to an official in the Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Israel forcefully opposes the PA’s payments, arguing that they incentivize violent attacks against Israelis. The Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership contends that their aim is to provide social welfare to injured Palestinians and Palestinian families who have lost a breadwinner.

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