Israel’s mobilised diplomatic counter-offensive

Mobile Edition. 01:56, 27 November, 2015

10:55, September 23, 2011
by Peter Beck.
(Filed under Columns)

Outside of UN Headquarters

COMMENTARY FROM JERUSALEM: Desperate diplomatic activity is trying to prevent what Israelis call a “train crash” in the UN, Friday. Today could prove to be dangerously dramatic if Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas runs the full course.

What is perhaps symptomatic is that Israel’s diplomats are running their feet off to convince as many UN countries as possible to vote against a Palestinian state in the General Assembly, at the same time authorities have issued my family and I with gas masks. They know full well that over 120 of UN member states have recognised “Palestine” a long time ago – which does not exist yet. At the same time, the Israelis are hoping that nine of the Security Council’s (UNSC) 15 members will vote against the Palestinians’ one-sided campaign for a state, so that the US avoids standing alone with its veto.

Jerusalem is calculating that of these 15, Nigeria, the US, UK, France, Germany, Portugal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia and Gabon will either vote against, or abstain if Abbas really goes to the UNSC with his statehood application. It is assumed India, Lebanon, Brazil, South Africa, China and Russia will vote in favour.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinians’ permanent UN observer, points out that over two-thirds of the UN’s member states have already recognised a Palestinian state, saying, “almost twice as many as the number of states that have recognised Israel.” He also points out that the door will certainly not be slammed shut, even if the US uses its announced veto, or if the majority of UNSC members should vote against.

“We all know that another way is via the Assembly,” he says, knowing full well that its decision is not binding but advisory for the UNSC, which has the last word. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority in the Assembly could be part of the Palestinian gambit, which will exert strong pressure on members of the UNSC.

The Palestinians know that going to the UNSC following clear US signals of a veto will make this extremely uncomfortable for President Obama and boomerang on the Palestinians. Several EU countries will also react against what individual observers call “exercises in political theatre solely meant to score points, which ultimately could ignite an Israeli-Palestinian powder keg.”

Husseim Ibish, an Libyan-American writer, and member of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), writes that “the potential damage which this thrust will cause to the Palestinians’ national interests can hardly be exaggerated...frustration and desperation can incite anger and violence, and turn a difficult diplomatic tangle into a complex political and diplomatic nightmare for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

On their part, Israeli authorities have prepared themselves for the worst. Police and army divisions have conducted several exercises in the last couple of months to test preparedness in the event of major Palestinian unrest on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Settlers on the West Bank are also mobilising and making themselves ready to hit back against Palestinian threats to close the approach roads to the settlements. Internal Israeli intelligence, Shin Bet, says there is nothing that indicates there will be violent Palestinian demonstrations for now. Nevertheless, they point out that events could quickly get out of control if tens or hundreds of thousands of Palestinians march towards the settlements and Israeli positions on the West Bank.

Israel’s UN Ambassador, Ron Prosor, warns his ambassadorial colleagues that, “you raise expectations by raising your hand to support something that is one-sided and not constructive for peace, which could lead to violence and countermeasures. So don’t come to us afterwards; you voted for it and it will also be your responsibility”.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stresses that in some ways, this warning will delineate the hectic, almost desperate diplomatic activity in the hours before this ill-fated Friday.

“There are many different elements that are being stirred here – talks between us, the Palestinians and the Israelis, and between the Palestinians, Israelis and European members of the UNSC, General Assembly members, and members of the Quartet on the Middle East,” she says.

Even several Fatah and Palestinian National Authority (PA) members are concerned about Abbas’ way of tackling the Peace Process, and particularly his UN gamble. Israeli-Palestinian journalist Abu Toameh quotes one of Abbas’ supporters as saying, “the President knows that the sharks will eat him if he jumps overboard from the peace ship now. Abbas needs a life-vest that will save him from drowning and that can protect him from the sharks’ jaws”.

The probability of Abbas daring to accept a lifebuoy now is limited. Admittedly, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, has carefully decreased his substantial opposition to commencing peace talks based on the 1967 Ceasefire lines as a point of departure (with mutual exchanges of territory). Whilst there is also an almost de facto freeze on building in the settlements, Netanyahu cannot or will not be able to evade one point, namely that the Palestinians recognise Israel as “the Homeland for the Jewish People”. Abbas cannot accept this as it will implicitly mean him giving up on the Palestinians’ ambitions of “returning” to areas they either fled, or were driven from during the battles of 1948.

According to the Palestinians, the Americans and the Europeans have not given two elements to the Palestinian President. PA members accuse Obama for having given false hopes when he stated that “hopefully, a Palestinian state will be established when the UN General Assembly meets next (this) year”. Abbas has reminded the Americans of this “promise”.

Not least, the Palestinians are anxious that Abbas is leading them towards the precipice with this state-initiative. They are concerned that funding from the US and Europeans will dry up and that the PA will quickly become bankrupt, with no possibility of paying 150,000 public employees, even though Saudi Arabia has promised the PA USD 200 million in support.

It is no secret that the Palestinian West Bank’s formidable economic growth is due mainly to monetary assistance from donor countries and other foreign economic support. Others are anxious that a third Intifada could break loose on the West Bank following increased Israeli-Palestinian tensions because of Abbas’ one-sided state-initiative.

Israeli commentators think despite everything, Abbas will find a way out of the cul-de-sac he has landed up in at the 11th-hour. He will, as he has promised his Palestinians, deliver his application for full UN membership to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but will ask him to put it in a drawer until December, and take it out again if “real negotiations” have not started with the Israelis within that time. How such a tactic will be materialised, or satisfy his domestic sharks, will be seen in the not-too-distant future.

Peter Beck, Jerusalem.

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