David E. Miller
With the deadline to turn to the United Nations for recognition of independence approaching, cracks may be emerging in the Palestinian leadership over whether to delay or abandon the drive.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has been successful in garnering international support, virtually ensuring a wide majority for a vote on Palestinian independence in the UN General Assembly in September. But he has run up against opposition from the U.S., Israel, and some European governments. At least some senior officials in his inner circles are skeptical the diplomatic course is worth it. Hamas, the rival movement with whom Abbas is supposed to form a national unity government, is at best lukewarm on the idea.
Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki indicated Palestinian hesitation on Tuesday in an interview with the Ma'an News Agency. "The September move could be avoided if negotiations begin before September with clear references and a timetable," he told Ma'an as the Quartet of powers overseeing the stalled negotiations with Israel met. The four failed to issue any joint statement, including a call for talks to restart, dealing the PA a setback.
"There are those who want to go to the UN regardless, because they have capitalized politically on this," Munther Dajani, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Al-Quds University told The Media Line. "But the pragmatists know the UN will get them nowhere."
The UN vote has emerged as the route for keeping its goal of a Palestinian state alive. Despite efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama, talks with Israel have failed to be renewed while Abbas and other PA leaders eschew the violence that Hamas and lower-level Palestinians leaders advocate. A failure to go to the UN would leave the PA adrift and without an alternative to Hamas' armed struggle.
The PA officially announced June 26 its intention to turn to the United Nations in September in an effort to attain recognition of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. Abbas and officials like Saeb Erekat seem genuinely committed to the strategy, but even they would prefer to go back to the negotiating table if Israel would agree, Dajani said.
Others, however, believe the UN drive is a risky strategy that will yield little for the Palestinians while angering the U.S. and threatening to spark a new cycle of violence that could destroy the state-building efforts underway since 2007. That pro-Western wing of the PA is led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and include former Palestinian envoy to the U.N. Nasser Al-Kidwa, who is advising Abbas to drop the U.N. initiative.
"It is not going to be a dramatic result," Fayyad told the Associated Press in a recent interview. Asked if anything would change on the ground after U.N. recognition, he said: "My answer to you is no. Unless Israel is part of that consensus, it won't because to me, it is about ending Israeli occupation."
But Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the Middle East Program of Chatham House, a London-based research center, said that short of disbanding the PA and returning security and economic responsibility for the West Bank to Israel, the PA holds few cards to use against the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But, he admitted, UN recognition of statehood could end up being a double-edged sword for the Palestinians. "The worst option for Palestinians is success," Shehadi said. "Because then there would be no mechanism to resume final status negotiations on issues such as borders or refugees."
Nevertheless, Abbas remains committed to the statehood drive and is enlisting support wherever he can find it, including Greece, where he met with Greek President Karolos Papoulias on Tuesday.
"There is no other option but to support the Palestinian plan to go to the United Nations to seek full membership for the state of Palestine on the 1967 borders," PLO official and former negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP on Tuesday.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, expressed confidence in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that the Palestinians would get at least 130 votes, but hinted that failing to reach that number would diminish their moral victory.
"If we go to a vote tomorrow, we will get two-thirds of the General Assembly. We have the votes. The significance of the number of votes is to maximize the pressure on the Security Council. What will be the argument of anyone to deprive us of the right to join the community of nations?" he said.
Palestinians are virtually unanimous that an accommodation with Israel is critical for a Palestinian state to get off the ground and that it can only be achieved through talks. They disagree whether UN recognition will harm or help them get there.
"Once you turn to the UN you can't negotiate, because Israel will boycott you," Dajani said, expressing the views of the UN-drive skeptics. "You can't eat your cake and have it too."
But Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and political analyst, said that many PA officials believed that UN recognition doesn't preclude future talks but will enhance the Palestinian position.
"Saeb Erakat believes that after the UN recognizes a Palestinian state, Palestinians will be able to negotiate with Israel from a position of power," he told The Media Line.
Kuttab said he believed that Al-Maliki's statements were less an expression of hesitation than a way of bringing skeptical countries onboard to support Palestinian statehood by showing them that the Palestinians are still committed to a negotiated settlement.
Palestinian leaders have voiced disappointment at the failure of the Quartet, including the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the UN, to issue a statement calling for the resumption of peace negotiations following a meeting in Washington this week.
Abbas said afterwards that if the Quartet was unable to agree on issues of refugees and an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, a turn to the UN would be inevitable.
But Chatham House's Shehadi said Palestinians needed the UN bid for psychological reasons no less than for practical ones.
"The notion of returning to negotiations doesn't excite Palestinians, whereas the UN bid shows that they're leading the agenda. There may be no other solution but negotiations, but the UN option gives the PA a morale boost, a feeling they have taken their destiny into their own hands."
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