Israel expressed willingness this week to resume peace talks with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions, as suggested by the Quartet, but Israeli officials are still bristling over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech last week at the United Nations.
“There may be negotiations, but Abbas has not contributed one iota to making it work,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli UN ambassador and an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Quartet (the United States, the UN, the European Union and Russia) presented its plan to the UN General Assembly last week. It calls for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet without preconditions within a month and to have security plans in place within three months. In addition, it calls for significant progress to be made within six months and a final peace agreement by the end of next year.
It does not call for a settlement-building freeze — something the Palestinians have been demanding — but calls on the parties to “refrain from provocative actions.”
Plans to approve 1,100 new housing units in the southern Jerusalem community of Gilo might cause such a complication. Israeli media reported Tuesday that the Jerusalem District Planning Committee is on track to approve the units after 60 days of public comment.
President Barack Obama complained in 2009 that adding new homes to Gilo, which lies just outside of Israel’s 1967 borders, could complicate efforts to re-launch talks.
Abbas repeated on Sunday his demand for a settlement freeze before agreeing to new talks. And the Palestinian Authority condemned the building project in a statement Tuesday, saying the action “creates preconditions on the ground. Netanyahu said there is no room for unilateral steps — there is no bigger step than ordering construction on Palestinian land.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. is “deeply disappointed” with the new building plans, considering it “counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations.” The European Union also criticized the move.
The unilateral step to which the Palestinians referred was their formal request last week that the UN Security Council recognize a Palestinian state and accept it as the 194th member of the world body.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, dismissed Palestinian objections to the housing expansion in Gilo, telling The Jewish Week: “The prime minister addressed the issue of settlements, saying they are not the reason for the conflict. The Palestinians are using this argument as an excuse not to advance in the negotiations. When it comes to negotiations with our Arab neighbors, we have always delivered and kept our agreements to the letter.”
“We said to the Palestinians that we are willing to negotiate immediately with no preconditions, and the Palestinians are not willing to do that,” he added. “Their assessment is that they will be able to push Israel into a corner with the help of the international community and thus avoid the need to negotiate. They believe they can get more by applying external pressure, so why negotiate.”
Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, said the Palestinians have to understand that the “trajectory of pressure under which the Israeli prime minister is operating” means there will not be a settlement freeze before negotiations.
“I wish it would, but it is not going to happen,” he said. “So the Palestinians have to decide what is wiser for them to do. In my view, it is to test the prime minister, and the only way to do that is engage in serious talks.”
Feldman, in a conference call with the Israel Policy Forum, warned that if talks are not resumed soon, Palestinians on the street might force the sides together.
“The basic conditions for massive confrontations exist,” he said. “They are supposed to be nonviolent demonstrations, but they could become violent very quickly. The basic conditions for a major flare-up are there and what will trigger it is hard to predict.”
Steven Spiegel, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, suggested the U.S. presidential campaign might help Obama convince the Palestinians to start negotiations immediately.
“The way the campaign is evolving, the very stance of the Republicans … may help Obama with the peace process,” he said, referring to a Republican position that some say is further to the right than Netanyahu’s.
After presenting the Palestinians’ formal application for UN admission, Abbas delivered an address to the UN General Assembly that one Israeli commentator called “ferocious, atrocious, noxious, defamatory and uncompromising.”
In it, Abbas used such words as “brutal,” “racist” and “apartheid” to describe Israel and claimed it is guilty of “ethnic cleansing.” After asserting that Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state would engulf the region in a “religious conflict,” he went on to distort the historical record of the Holy Land.
“I think the most glaring aspect of Abbas’ speech was the way he described the Holy Land as a territory from which Mohammad rose to heaven and Jesus walked, without making a single reference to the Judaic heritage,” Gold said. “Remember, Abbas is claiming the 1967 lines, which include the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. So how can he ignore the Jewish roots of the territory to which he is laying claim?
“For that reason alone, Israel must continue to insist that a peace accord require Palestinian recognition of the rights of the Jewish people to a nation state of their own in their ancestral homeland. Abbas is still using the narrative of total denial of Jewish history. … He wants his legacy to be that he gave up nothing, even though he has been part of the negotiating process since 1993.”
Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, said he watched Abbas’ speech “hoping for a recognition of mistakes of the past. But I became disappointed within the first few minutes when he began talking about Israeli excavation of Palestinian holy sites. I was naïve. It was like I was in a time machine and had gone back 30 or 35 years and was listening to the old rhetoric.”
“When we get sentimental about him, we have to keep in mind that he is a Holocaust denier,” Edelstein added. “This is his state of mind and his views of history and the Israelis. It’s very unfortunate. I could say also that it was a speech of a person who is desperate not to negotiate. … He is not ready to give us an end of claims resolution; he is looking for ways to stay relevant and continue bashing.”
A subcommittee of the UN Security Council is expected to begin studying the Palestinian application this week, which could take weeks or even months before it is ready for a vote. Obama in his address to the General Assembly vowed to veto the application.
Should that happen, the Palestinians have promised to go to the General Assembly to request an upgrade in their status to that of a nonmember state; the General Assembly does not have the power to admit nations to the world body.
The Palestinians’ gambit at the UN, Aharoni said, “was a dangerous and irresponsible move because at no stage of this process is there a realistic chance of them becoming a member of the UN. … This showdown at the UN revealed the real nature of the Palestinian maneuver. It was not about securing a better future for the Palestinian people; it was about public relations.”
Should the General Assembly upgrade the Palestinians’ status or the Security Council accord it membership in the UN, a bill introduced last week by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch would call for the United States to de-fund the UN. Such an action, he said in a statement, would “undermine Israel’s security. … Make no mistake, there will be consequences associated with efforts to undermine the security of America’s friends and allies.”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester, Rockland) told The Jewish Week she believes de-funding the UN would be “counterproductive” but said she would “re-evaluate” America’s funding of the Palestinian Authority if it goes ahead with plans to unite with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and is dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
And in remarks at a press conference of a dozen elected officials overlooking the UN Monday organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Lowey said Abbas’ UN speech made it clear “he’s not interested in peace. Peacemakers are not obstinate, cynical, incendiary and inflammatory. Peacemakers don’t blatantly disregard those who have invested $2.9 billion since 2005 in enhancing their security, improving basic services and supporting economic progress.”
Newly elected Rep. Bob Turner (R-Queens, Brooklyn) said he was concerned that the Palestinian Authority continues to pay with American dollars “terrorists in Israeli prisons convicted of murdering Israeli civilians, and it has done nothing to stop the incessant shelling of Israeli towns. I continue to believe that all U.S. funding of the Palestinian Authority should be halted until these matters are addressed.”
Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called on Abbas to grasp “Netanyahu’s extended hand and sit down at the negotiating table, not at the United Nations. … It is all too clear that Israel remains under attack from those dedicated to its destruction, and we cannot sit idly by. That is why I have fought successfully to increase funding for the U.S.-Israel anti-missile defense system. There is no greater threat to Israel, the United States or our allies than a nuclear Iran.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) termed the Palestinian actions at the UN last week “political theater and hypocrisy.”
“The only way the Palestinians will gain statehood is through direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions,” she said. “Instead of producing a real Palestinian state, they will achieve nothing more than inciting me and my colleagues in Congress to de-fund them.”
Brandeis’ Feldman said he believes such a move would be a mistake because the economic development and institution building that has occurred in the Palestinian West Bank over the last three years would be jeopardized.
“Punitive motives like cutting U.S. assistance is contrary to Israel’s national interest,” he said. “Israel does not want to see the PA deteriorate.”