With seemingly mixed moves, Palestinians play long game

Pursuing statehood in the UN while maintaining security ties is part of a strategy to checkmate Netanyahu, or die trying

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah office, with an imge of the Temple Mount in the background  (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah office, with an imge of the Temple Mount in the background (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Twin decisions by the Palestinian Authority Sunday night to appeal to the UN Security Council for statehood recognition while also moving to maintain security cooperation with Israel, testify — odd as it may sound — to an interest in preventing a rupture in Israeli-Palestinian relations, at least in the near future.

The same interest in keeping calm was on display last week as relative quiet in the West Bank was preserved despite the death of Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ein at a West Bank demonstration during a confrontation with Israeli security forces.

It is likely that the ill-timed death of Abu Ein, on the eve of the anniversary of the founding of Hamas, was also a contributing factor in the decision by Fatah to refrain from organizing large demonstrations at friction points with Israel. No one in the PA or Fatah wanted a third intifada to break out during the rival faction’s festival.

The media in Israel and around the world naturally focused mostly on the first half of the decision by the Palestinian leadership — the plan to appeal to the Security Council on Wednesday — and less on the other part.

But the conclusion by the PA to maintain all-important security cooperation shows that while Ramallah may be interested in a diplomatic confrontation with Israel, it is definitely not aiming for a violent clash.

This is a constant refrain from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: Yes to a popular and diplomatic resistance, but no to violence.

Preserving the security cooperation with Israel is likely to help uphold the relative quiet in the West Bank.

Playing chess with Netanyahu

So why, nonetheless, the decision to go ahead and appeal on Wednesday to the Security Council and not wait for Israeli elections, scheduled for March 17, to see if a government more friendly to peace talks is installed?

Firstly, the Palestinian leadership understands that it needed to show the populace that it is doing something and is not just helpless when facing off against Israel.

In addition, the Palestinians have been worried for the last few days that the American government, together with the French, would present a resolution that is more Israel friendly, to undermine the Palestinian one which includes a clear timetable of two years to end the Israeli occupation.

Hence the urgency. And still, there is a window of two days until Wednesday that enables the PA to open negotiations with France and the United States in order to formulate a compromise resolution that will be closer to the Palestinian position.

The PA is trying to play chess against Prime Minister Netanyahu and the US government. Ramallah understands that its refusal to budge on the issue means there is a reasonable possibility the White House will decide to veto the Palestinian proposal. And so, it is already formulating its next moves in what is really a complete strategic plan designed to at least ignore Israeli elections but also embarrass Netanyahu.

The upshot is that in the event of a failure in the Security Council, the PA will apply to join the International Criminal Court.

If Israel tries to punish the PA, principally with economic measures like withholding tax transfers, then the Palestinians will choose the nuclear option of ending security cooperation with Israel.

That step would dramatically impair the ability of the PA to operate and maintain its position in the West Bank, but it’s possible that continuing to cooperate with Israel would harm it just as much.

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