The frustration in the voice of former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh is evident when he speaks of the planned U.S. opposition to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for United Nations’ recognition of Palestine as a non-member state.
The move, slated for this Thursday, threatens to “destroy America’s only achievement in this region,” he said by phone from Jerusalem, referring to the American training of the Palestinian security force in the West Bank.
His fear, Sneh said, is that Congress will react to the UN vote by withdrawing economic aid to Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Such a punitive measure would be “idiotic,” he said, because “we would be shooting ourselves not in the foot but in the liver.”
“The West Bank is now almost totally quiet,” Sneh explained. “To a great extent that is because of the cooperation between our security forces and Palestinian security forces. If the Palestinian security force collapses because Congress cuts their pay, Israel will suffer. The Israel Defense Forces will be a larger presence in the West Bank, there will be more friction with Palestinians and more casualties for Israel to deal with.”
Yossi Beilin, former deputy foreign minister and an architect of the Oslo Accords, supports Palestinian statehood and wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week that “if American and Israeli opposition to a Palestinian bid continues, it could serve as a mortal blow to Mr. Abbas, and end up being the prize that enhances the power and legitimacy of Hamas.”
But those views are in contrast with that of the Israeli government, as well as the vast majority of American Jewish groups.
“We had a meeting last week to discuss it and our position is to oppose it and to use the resources we have available to try to get the Europeans as a bloc to vote against it or at the very least to abstain,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“There are many consequences, known and unknown, that could result from this move, including the cutting of aid to the Palestinian Authority and punitive measures Israel could take,” he continued. “It certainly is not going to better the lives of the Palestinian people, but it would preclude the chances of negotiation [with Israel], even if they are slim now.”
By becoming a non-member observer state via a General Assembly vote, the Palestinians believe they would be able to file charges against Israeli officials with the UN’s International Criminal Court in the Hague. Hoenlein said the court previously held that the Palestinians lacked standing and that it is not clear whether their new status would change that.
In the days leading up to Thursday’s vote, the U.S. reportedly attempted to convince the Palestinians to stipulate in their resolution that they would not approach the ICC to file charges against Israeli officials. The United Kingdom is said to have told the Palestinians they would have its support only if that wording was in the resolution.
But a senior Israeli official was quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying that the chief of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, rebuffed an American request to fly to Washington to negotiate the wording of the resolution.
Instead, the Palestinians reportedly agreed to offer an oral commitment that they would not turn to the ICC for six months. After that, they would be free to do as they wished.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his organization opposed Abbas’ move in the belief “the UN should not be a reward for doing nothing, [for] not having the courage to confront the issues, [for not being] ready and willing to make compromises and bring closure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Abbas has said that after the UN vote he would sit down without any preconditions and negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. For the last several years, he has insisted that there would be no talks unless Israel stopped all settlement construction and agreed to negotiate peace based on Israel’s pre-1967 border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is ready for peace talks but only without preconditions.
Foxman pointed out that not only is Abbas upsetting Israel by going to the UN, but he is “sticking his fingers in the eye of the president of the United States.”
An American official was quoted as saying that continued U.S. funding of the General Assembly depended on an analysis of the wording of the Palestinian resolution. When the Palestinians sought and were awarded membership in UNESCO, the U.S. stopped all funding of that body in accordance with U.S. law.
But Sneh said he believed President Barack Obama has the power to block the withdrawal of aid money to the Palestinian Authority and that he believes Obama must exercise that power rather than see the PA’s demise. He pointed out that the Palestinian resolution also included a provision in which the international body recognized “the vision of two states, an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable state of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with Israel, on the basis of the pre-1967 borders.”
That statement is remarkable, Sneh said, because “the Palestinians are coming to the UN to be recognized as a state on 22 percent of the territory of historic Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea” — half what the UN voted to give them just 65 years ago.
He said he believes a peace agreement between Abbas and Israel is achievable because of his separate conversations in recent months with both Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Both men told him they were close to an agreement in the summer of 2008 before Olmert was compelled to resign because of pending criminal charges against him.
The dovish Israel Policy Forum issued a statement saying that although they are “sympathetic to Palestinian statehood aspirations, we believe this bid, brought now, will only set the peace process back further.”
“The most tangible direct consequence of putting the word ‘state’ behind Palestine’s title is the potential it brings for Palestine to challenge Israel at the International Criminal Court instead of resolving their differences through negotiation.”
However, Americans for Peace Now issued a statement supporting Abbas’ move in the UN, explaining that in the wake of the latest fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas the international community “must take urgent action to restore faith in a negotiated two-state solution … and to strengthen those … who are standing firmly with such a solution. Supporting Abbas’ UN effort is a first step to doing just that.”
Another group, J Street, which describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” warned against any punitive actions against the Palestinian Authority because of its decision to go to the UN. It said it is the actions of the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians “following the vote that will determine whether we are moving toward or away from a negotiated resolution to the conflict. We strongly oppose retaliatory measures against the PLO or the Palestinian Authority — in particular, Congressional efforts to cut funding, which could lead to the collapse of the PA and jeopardize the important progress it has made in recent years.”