Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday night that he was determined to ask the United Nations to unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state this month, J Street, a leading liberal Jewish group here, announced its opposition to the move.
Abbas made it clear in a meeting Monday in Ramallah with 20 left-wing Israeli intellectuals and artists that the Palestinians plan to go first to the UN Security Council to request full UN membership. Should that fail — the U.S. has threatened to veto such a move — Abbas said he would ask the General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinians’ status from observer to non-voting member.
“We have exhausted all opportunities, so we have to go to the UN,” Abbas was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
After the UN vote, he added, he would be willing to sit down to peace talks with Israel.
But the U.S., Israel and other nations are trying to convince Abbas that this approach would only, in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “set back peace.” In fact, this week Tony Blair, special envoy of the Mideast Quartet, was to meet in the region to try to convince Israeli and Palestinian officials to resume peace talks immediately, thereby derailing the U.N. bid. A similar effort was to be made by the new U.S. special Middle East envoy, David Hale.
In addition, the Palestine News Network reported Tuesday that the leadership of Abbas’ Fatah Party is re-wording the UN proposal to make it acceptable to more countries. Instead of calling for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, it asks for a state whose borders are to be determined in later negotiations with Israel.
It will say the borders are to be based on those of 1967 but have flexibility, something President Barack Obama has called for and which would make it difficult for the U.S. to oppose.
This uncertainty is what is keeping Americans for Peace Now from taking a position on the Palestinian UN bid until the situation becomes clearer. But another liberal Jewish group, J Street, finally decided Wednesday to oppose the Palestinian move, telling JTA that it would support the Obama administration if it vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution to recognize a Palestinian state and grant the Palestinians full U.N. membership. The group said it is urging Palestinian leaders to defer plans to introduce such a resolution, but it said it does not favor cutting Western funding to them should they proceed anyway.
Mainstream Jewish organizations have also denounced any Palestinian moves at the UN, saying the Palestinians’ future aspirations will be realized only at the peace table and not in the halls of the building at Turtle Bay.
“The evidence is overwhelming that President Abbas’ attempt to bypass talks and seek unilateral recognition will be a blow to peace,” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement last week.
Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said that although “the Palestinians have a right to [seek UN recognition], we have not taken a position in terms of endorsing it or not. We still don’t know what their action will be. The devil is in the details.”
In the meantime, Americans for Peace Now issued a statement in which it said it was “unwise and irresponsible” for “pundits and organizations” to unequivocally oppose the Palestinian UN effort. It said that although UN action can never be an alternative for a negotiated settlement, the UN bid is being made not because the Palestinians are rejecting peace talks but because of the “loss of credibility of the current peace process.”
It went on to say that by turning to the UN the Palestinian leadership was demonstrating a “determination to achieve progress through non-violent means.” And it acknowledged risks should this avenue be pursued.
“Israel could potentially be subjected to sanctions and multilateral enforcement mechanisms,” Americans for Peace Now said, noting that Palestinians too could see an Israeli expansion of settlements that “could hasten the demise of the two-state solution.”
“There is also the risk, in the wake of such action by the UN, of stepped-up pressure for sanctions and other punishment against the Palestinians (by the U.S., Israel, and others),” it added.
A spokeswoman for the other major liberal Jewish group here, the New Israel Fund, said this is an issue beyond its “sphere of operations.”
“We are in favor of a two-state solution and we oppose the occupation, but we are not a peace organization,” said Naomi Paiss, the spokeswoman. “We want serious negotiations and want them right away, but we take no position on Palestinian statehood.”
The major mainstream Jewish organizations have for months been calling on the Palestinians to drop their UN bid. In July, the leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement welcoming America’s “rejection of Palestinian grandstanding and avoidance of direct, bilateral negotiations. We urge European countries, especially those on the Security Council, to be equally forthright in insisting on negotiations and rejecting Abbas’ efforts to bypass talks with Israel.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote an op-ed last month in which he called the UN move “another classic mistake by Palestinian leadership.”
After pointing out that every Israeli prime minister since Ehud Barak in 2000 has favored the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, Foxman said a key to bringing it about is Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Had they agreed to that when the UN recommended partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, a Palestinian state would have been born in May 1948 alongside Israel.
“Instead, the Palestinians were more interested in destroying the new Jewish state than building their own,” he said. “UN recognition of a Palestinian state is directly in line with all these other tactics to avoid negotiating in good faith and making peace with the state of Israel.”
Pro-Palestinian publications are carrying articles that foresee little change on the ground for Palestinians but major ramifications nevertheless.
Two Iranian journalists quoted a source in the Israeli government as saying the U.N. vote could lead to economic sanctions against Israel and lead to the severing of all trade ties by some nations, that Israel might be forced to withdraw from international trade organizations, and that international pressure might compel Israel to permit the first Palestinian international airport to be built in the West Bank.
Georgina Reeves, writing in the Palestine Chronicle, asked whether the Palestinian Authority is prepared to “function as a state [the day after the UN vote] with all that entails?”
“Nation-building is not some vague exercise that can be achieved through rhetoric and a whirl of diplomatic visits,” she wrote. “Running a state confers a huge amount of responsibility on the authority concerned. Being a nation is more than writing some rules, employing some people, establishing some departments, creating some bureaucracy. It’s about the relationship between the authority and its people: the respect and the trust, the belief and the partnership.”
She concluded by questioning whether Abbas really wants to “alienate a U.S. president up for re-election? Forcing Obama to choose between Israel and Palestine when his second term is looking far from achievable is not a clever move and the outcome is certain: the US administration will always support Israel over Palestine. It is plausible that a backroom deal is done and the declaration is called off at the last minute, which would save face for many. But then, as usual, ordinary Palestinians are the losers. Abandoned yet again by their leadership, and continually used as political pawns by Arab nations and the wider international community, it is hard to imagine Abbas going through with it. But then again, perhaps this time he has gone too far?”