NEW YORK — The Palestinian Authority will seek, and likely win, recognition as a nonmember observer state on Thursday from the 193-member United Nations General Assembly. The move will have little effect on the ground, changing neither Israel’s security calculus nor the internal divisions of Palestinian politics.
But diplomats and observers believe it will mark a dramatic turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-cum-peace process of the past 20 years.
The optimists, like former prime minister Ehud Olmert and American Jewish left-wing advocacy group J Street, believe that the sidelined Palestinian Authority will earn enough political capital from the vote that it will have the public standing — and crucially, the desire — to return to negotiations with Israel for two states and peace.
The pessimists, including the White House, a majority of the Israeli political mainstream and most American Jewish advocacy groups, believe that the Palestinian Authority will be unable and unwilling to expend what capital it earns from the diplomatic victory on renewing negotiations. Rather, the PA will choose the more palatable option domestically and escalate the international legal challenges to Israel’s policies — and, rhetorically at least, to its very nature and existence — by joining the International Criminal Court and appealing for ICC investigations of Israeli officials and officers.
Optimists point to several statements by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, such as the one delivered earlier this month to the Arab League that seemed to suggest a willingness to return to negotiations in the wake of the UN vote.
“If it is possible to start talks on the following day [after the UN vote] then we are ready for that,” Abbas told reporters in Cairo.
Pessimists, meanwhile, point to statements delivered to Palestinian audiences by the likes of former PA foreign minister and current top negotiator Nabil Shaath, who told a Hamas rally in Gaza a week ago, “When you shout that you are marching toward Jerusalem, well this is exactly what your victory is doing. It is defending Jerusalem and Palestine in its entirety by all means of resistance — by armed resistance, by political resistance, by going to the UN, by solidarity — by all forms of confrontation with the enemy occupying our land.”
Abbas himself used his UN General Assembly speech in September to denounce Israel as an international lawbreaker that is “permitted to evade accountability and punishment” despite “its violations of international law and covenants,” and must be “compelled” to “respect the Geneva Conventions.”
Will the Palestinian Authority use the political capital garnered from a UN-granted diplomatic victory to come to the negotiating table? Or, as Shaath seemed to suggest to a Hamas rally last week and Abbas at his previous UN appearance, will it use the bid to launch one more front against Israel while refusing to negotiate?
Indeed, the question of whether the PA needs to actively apply to the ICC may be academic, as a statement in September by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda suggested that the court may gain jurisdiction over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict automatically through the General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a state.
“What we have also done is to leave the door open, and to say that if Palestine is able to pass over that hurdle [of statehood] — of course, under the [UN] General Assembly — then we will revisit what the ICC can do,” Bensouda told a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington.
She added that the ICC may be able to begin investigating Israel on the strength of the rejected 2009 PA request to join the Rome Statute that established the court.
“Palestine made a declaration under the [Rome] Statute acknowledging the jurisdiction of the court. As you know, this is one of the ways in which we can have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute,” Bensouda said.
Even if the optimists are right and the PA is going to the UN with the best intentions to negotiate afterwards, will the PA be able to resist the temptation, and the titanic pressures from opposing Palestinian factions, to attempt to drag Israel before international courts rather than sit down to peace talks? And even if it somehow manages to resist such pressure for the sake of negotiations, presumably at great cost to its domestic standing, will Israel face the same ICC investigations regardless, pushing Israel away from any talks in the face of a renewed “lawfare” challenge?