Israel calls its own bluff on the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during a rally supporting the Palestinian UN bid for observer state status, in the West Bank city of Ramallah (Photo: Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)

After weeks of threatening substantive punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority (PA) if it went through with its bid for non-member observer status at the United Nations, Israel has made clear it will do nothing of the sort. It is an entirely predictable move centered on the very true premise that the Palestinian Authority is the best thing Israel has going for itself. 

Haaretz’ Barak Ravid reports that “after long weeks of Israel viewing the Palestinian bid in the United Nations as a grave threat, the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry now have to back down.” The pivot from threatening to collapse the PA to saying they will now do essentially nothing is quite stark.

Over the past few months, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has, of course, taken the lead in blustering about PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ plan to ask the UN to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem–22% of historic Palestine. Abbas is set to watch the vote at the UN tomorrow.

Lieberman called Abbas’ moves “diplomatic terror” in September.  Earlier this month, the Foreign Ministry also leaked to Haaretz their plans for punishing the PA. The possible measures leaked to Haaretz included a settlement building drive in the West Bank; limits on travel in the West Bank, particularly for PA officials; economic sanctions, like “freezing the tax funds that Israel collects monthly for the Palestinian Authority, which would prevent the PA from paying the salaries of its employees and security personnel; and “cancelling the Paris agreement, an economic appendix of the Oslo accords that regulates economic ties between Israel and the PA.”

None of that will happen. Haaretz has more:

After long weeks of Israel viewing the Palestinian bid in the United Nations as a grave threat, the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry now have to back down. Sources associated with Netanyahu and Lieberman are trying to belittle the event in the United Nations and describe it as merely a technical and procedural vote or as a symbolic Palestinian victory devoid of diplomatic significance.

The new Israeli policy involves lowering its media profile. The haughty assertion that Israel will punish the Palestinians the day after the UN vote has disappeared. Lieberman’s impassioned threats to bring down the Palestinian Authority have also been put in storage.

A senior diplomatic source pointed out that with regard to the Israeli reaction, “lowering the profile” will be key. He said that, despite the previous threats, Israel does not intend to cancel the Oslo Accords, either in whole or in part . The idea raised in the forum of nine ministers to announce the construction of 3,000 new housing units in the settlements was dropped because Netanyahu and the other ministers realized this would scuttle Israel’s public diplomacy efforts.

“We examined different ways to react, but eventually the ministers realized that almost whatever we do will hurt Israel at least as much as it will hurt the Palestinians,” the senior diplomatic source said. “If the [Palestinian] Authority collapses, it will fall on our heads. We don’t have to draw fire immediately after the vote – it’s preferable for the Palestinians to be under pressure to renew the negotiations, as they promised.”

The United States had reportedly warned Israel against moves like building in the contentious E1 area of East Jerusalem to punish the PA, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now come around to the US position as well. The US and Israel, of course, know the PA serves as Israel’s subcontractor in the West Bank. 

As Adam Shatz aptly put it in the London Review of Books, the arrangement Israel and the PA have is nothing short of extraordinary: ”the security forces of a country under occupation are being subcontracted by third parties outside the region to prevent resistance to the occupying power, even as that power continues to grab more land.” Both the US and Israel have no interest in disturbing that arrangement. 

At most, Israel will carry out symbolic moves to make clear their displeasure at the UN bid without threatening the stability of continued PA rule in the West Bank. Haaretz reported that Israel may “stop ignoring the Palestinians’ infringement of agreements between the sides and will irritate PA President Mahmoud Abbas by insisting on enacting every clause of every one of the agreements.”

The “lowered profile” of Israel in response to the UN bid comes as PA officials make clear they will not be rushing to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Israel for war crimes, even if they have the opportunity. “I don’t believe that we are going to be rushing the second day to join everything related to the United Nations, including the ICC,” a Palestinian spokesman said yesterday. That reassurance, while leaving open the possibility of future ICC action, will do a lot to temper the US and European reaction to the bid. 

Some European nations in recent days have begun to say that they will support the UN bid. France has become the most high-profile country to pledge support for the PA‘s UN gambit. Spain, too, has pledged support. 

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement today that “while there is no question of the United Kingdom voting against the resolution, in order to vote for it we would need certain assurances or amendments.” These reassurances include “a clear commitment to return immediately to negotiations without preconditions” and a pledge from the PA to refrain from going to the ICC. If those conditions are not met, the UK is likely to abstain from the vote. 

Hague also hinted at another motivation for why Europe is backing Abbas now: Gaza. “The crisis in Gaza and tragic loss of Palestinian and Israeli life shows why the region and the world cannot afford this vacuum in the peace process,” said Hague. Behind the scenes, though, there is likely a recognition that the latest assault on Gaza only boosted the prestige of Hamas, and that backing Abbas is a way of lowering that prestige and boosting the PA.

But there’s also some interesting news on that front: Hamas leaders have come out to say they support the UN bid. This news comes as Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank continue to call for reconciliation between the Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas, especially in the wake of the Gaza assault. 

So where does this all leave us? The PA will garner substantial support for their bid for statehood. But they will then come under intense pressure from Europe and the US to renew negotiations with Israel. Whether or not the PA accedes to that pressure, nothing on the ground will change as a result of the bid. The PA will remain propped up by the West and Israel, an integral part of how Israel manages to carry out its occupation. For those hoping for a game changer in Israel/Palestine, you’ll have to look at things other than the UN bid.

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