While seeking to discourage the Palestinians from seeking statehood at the United Nations, and uttering vague threats if they persist, Israel is also offering incentives to the PA to drop the unilateral statehood gambit, officials said.
The carrots include a release of prisoners and support to help the Palestinians exploit the gas fields off Gaza, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said Sunday.
PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said he was unaware of any such offer.
“Over the last five weeks, Israel has initiated a whole series of confidence-building measures in order to create an atmosphere that will encourage the Palestinians to return to direct talks,” a government official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “However, if the Palestinians do follow through on their threat and unilaterally seek statehood at the UN,” the official added, “that would be a move in the wrong direction and would necessitate an Israeli response.”
PA President Mahmoud Abbas is said to be planning to turn to the UN General Assembly in September and seek to begin the process for Palestine to be recognized as a non-member state.
‘If the Palestinians refuse to return to the negotiating table and try unilaterally to change their status, we will consider this a grave violation of all agreements’
Last year at the September General Assembly, Abbas announced that he was applying for UN membership for Palestine, but the United States made clear it would veto the move in the Security Council, and the Palestinians could not muster the votes in the Council to force the veto. Washington subsequently cut funding to other UN bodies which admitted the Palestinians as members.
Now the Palestinians, who currently have observer status at the UN, are said to be considering seeking a resolution at the upcoming General Assembly meet that would grant them the status of a non-member state, similar to the Vatican. 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 is bent on preventing the UN gambit. “If the Palestinians refuse to return to the negotiating table and try unilaterally to change their status, we will consider this a grave violation of all agreements,” an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Maariv reported on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has doubled to 50 the number of Palestinian prisoners, some of them jailed since before the start of the Oslo process, he is willing to release — on two conditions: if the Palestinians abandon their efforts to seek statehood at the UN, and if Abbas agrees to meet Netanyahu for renewed peace talks. Abbas currently refuses to meet Netanyahu, demanding Israel first freeze West Bank settlement building and release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners.
Erekat told The Times of Israel on Sunday he knew nothing of these ideas.
The PMO had no comment on Maariv’s report. An official there did say, however, that Israel has made several “gestures of good will” aimed at reinvigorating the stalled peace process. Such steps included asking the International Monetary Fund for a $100 million loan to the PA last month – which was rejected, ironically, because the PA is not a state — and an agreement signed by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad regulating the taxation and the transfer of goods between Israel and the PA last week. In late March, Israel returned the bodies of 91 Palestinians, and, last month advanced NIS 180 million to the PA in tax transfers to help the authority through the financial difficulties ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.
Israel is also ready to allow the PA to exploit the natural gas field off the Gaza coast, which hitherto has been laying barren, if the Palestinians abort their UN statehood mission. “Israel is ready to start talks about cooperating with the Palestinians in this area, so that they could utilize and exploit the gas field,” the official said.
While the official presented the various measures and offers as beneficial to the Palestinians, Netanyahu is also said to regard it as an Israeli interest that the Palestinians live in relative economic stability, since it means they are less likely to resort to anti-Israel terrorism than those in distress, who have little to lose by attacking Israeli targets.
According to Israeli energy experts, the development of Gaza Marine, the gas field off Gaza, is also in the interest of Israel’s government.
“The people of Ashkelon suffer pollution from electricity produced for the people of Gaza,” Haifa University’s Brenda Shaffer told The Times of Israel recently. “There’s also a small diesel fire plant in Gaza that’s very polluting, and that pollution doesn’t stop at the checkpoints. [An alternative energy source] would be good for Palestinians but also good for Israel.”
The PMO declined to detail what kind of response the Palestinians could expect if they defied Jerusalem’s opposition — and that of the US — and went ahead with their statehood bid.
The Associated Press last week reported about an internal Palestinian document describing certain punitive measures the PA expects from Israel and the US if it went to the General Assembly. The US could shut down the PLO mission in Washington and suspend financial assistance to the Palestinians to the tune of millions of dollars, according to the report. And the Israelis could augment restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement.