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How Will the Palestinian U.N. Move Impact Prospects for Mideast Peace?

November 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Palestinians go to the United Nations to ask for more recognition, Margaret Warner talks to Ghaith al-Omari of New America Foundation and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute about why the different Palestinian factions are seeking a status change and how it may affect tensions with Israel and longterm peace prospects.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the Palestinian bid for greater recognition at the United Nations, I’m joined by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, and Ghaith Al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.

Welcome back to both of you.

Let’s start by explaining, why is this such a big deal? You have got the U.S. vociferously opposed to it. Why is this such a big deal, first of all, for the Palestinians?

GHAITH AL-OMARI, American Task Force on Palestine: For President Abbas, the stagnation in the peace process over the last couple of years, his lack of any diplomatic achievements throughout that period, and the fact that we have seen Hamas gaining more and more mainstreaming in the region and beyond the region makes it…

MARGARET WARNER: Gaining more popularity?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: More popularity, more diplomatic recognition by some of the Arab countries, et cetera.

All of these things have made Abbas need a diplomatic achievement, not necessarily for the strategic value of it, but for the political value and for the credibility that’s been given him in the Palestinian streets.

MARGARET WARNER: And why is it such a big deal for Israel?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: For Israel, they see it as politically harmful, as a step away from the table. As Ghaith said, we have been in this impasse now for a few years.

And it seems it incentivizes the Palestinians go to a third party, the U.N., to impose an outcome of statehood and to get the statehood without going through a peace, and that these two ideas should be really joined. So that’s the main point.

And the second fear is that somehow this would put a snowball impact on the International Criminal Court and create certain efforts to delegitimize Israel in the international arena, and if there was another Gaza situation that it would impair Israel’s ability to defend itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Because the new Palestinian “state” — quote, unquote — might take the opportunity to go to the ICC.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: They’d be at least entitled to try for membership there.

So, Ghaith, back to you. What impact did the Gaza conflict that just ended a week ago have on all the actors here?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: From a Palestinian point of view, from point of view of President Abbas, it made it very clear and it sharpened his need for political achievement.

So it made him more determined to go through with this step. For some of the Europeans, I think, they felt that Hamas’ diplomatic and political gains are getting too much. And Abbas needs again for himself.

So you saw some countries like France and others changing their view, and moving from abstention to actually voting for — because they felt that the trends are going in a negative direction.

And I suspect what we will see in the Israeli and American reaction in the day after some recognition that the balance of power in Palestine has shifted, and Abbas needs to be supported at this moment, even though there is tremendous frustration with his move.

But I think, strategically, they understand that he has to be strengthened. Otherwise, it’s going to be Hamas that is going to take the lead.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree? Do you expect Israel’s reaction to be less negative than it would have been two weeks ago? Explain this.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, I think, actually, Ghaith and I agree. I think that it’s more muted right now.

Now, things could change in 24 hours if Abbas gives an incendiary speech at the U.N. where, like he’s done in the past, said Jerusalem is only the capital for Christianity and Islam, and hasn’t even mentioned the Jewish connection of the land. So the tone could impact things.

But I think it’s more muted for the reason Ghaith said. I think there is some concern that, with the Gaza campaign last week, that that gave Hamas too much of a boost, and this would really be leading to a situation where Israel’s steps could hurt the wrong guys, which are the…

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, for instance, if Israel were to try to withhold the tax money they collect.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Right. We will have to see for sure. But I think that is a big factor.

I think a second element in this is the counterintuitive relationship that is emerging between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as a result of Gaza.

I was in Jerusalem, I was in Ramallah last week and — during Gaza — and it was striking how the prime minister’s people were very delighted by the statement of the president in East Asia that…

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the prime minister of Israel was delighted?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Right, and that therefore this is — they’re not looking for something that would in any way lead to more tension between the U.S. and Israel.

And, also, I might add that we just came off of a Likud primary a couple days ago. And Netanyahu is now in a general election where he wants to maximize the vote, which means — also says that you can manage the American account.

MARGARET WARNER: But Abbas as a leader in the Palestinian community has been adversely affected by Gaza, has he not?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Oh, most certainly, most certainly.

MARGARET WARNER: And his whole path toward negotiation?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Basically, the message incoming from Hamas right now is negotiation and diplomacy have produced nothing. Throwing missiles into Israel is producing gains, whether politically. Now after the last Gaza round, they expect that things are going to go — open up, the borders are going to open up.

All of these things mean that Hamas’ message that violence actually works is taking traction, while Abbas’ message that diplomacy works has produced nothing over the last couple of years.

Added to this, I would say over the last year what we have seen is a very interesting dynamic, on the high diplomacy, the very visible diplomacy, a lot of tension and a lot of mutual recrimination.

On the ground, there has been a degree of cooperation between Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his government and the Israeli government, to such an extent that you see elements in the Israeli government right now wanting to actually reward that kind of trend, and are aware that cutting off funds, whether by the U.S. or by Israel, actually hurts the one and only thing that has been working.

So I think all of these things together come to produce would what I would hope would be a more rational response.

MARGARET WARNER: So, bottom line, what impacts will this have on, say, the prospects for moving at all off the dime on negotiations, which have been stalled so many years?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, I think nothing is big is going to happen until after the Israeli elections in January. And, hopefully, we will see a broader-based government there.

And, hopefully, we will see also President Abbas realize two years of impasse, not coming to the table has not really yielded much and that they will basically realize you could have all of the symbolic votes at the U.N. as you want, but there’s no substitute for working out your differences face to face, and the road to statehood leads through peace.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean through negotiated peace.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: So, but that would require the Palestinians to drop their precondition on talks, right, which has been first Israel has to stop building settlements.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I think it would require action from the three parties, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the U.S.

From the Palestinian point of view, I think Abbas has a choice. Either he’s going to use his newfound momentum to pivot towards creating a condition where we can have peace talks after the Israeli negotiations.

MARGARET WARNER: Which would mean dropping that demand.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: It will be dropping that demand, producing a new public messaging, focusing more on things on the ground, less confrontational, more looking towards direction, but also requires Israel to react to this — or not to overreact to this, whether by cutting off funding or changing settlements on the West Bank, and requires the U.S. as well to not overreact by cutting off funding, but to try to find these areas of common interest that exist, and build on them in order to create a virtuous dynamic that, come the Israeli elections, we might have the groundwork laid out for something serious.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, hope springs eternal, as always.

Ghaith Al-Omari, David Makovsky, thank you.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you.