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Palestinians to Demand U.N. Vote on Statehood

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo by Olivier Pacteau via Flickr Creative Commons.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will go to the United Nations next week and ask the world body to recognize a Palestinian state. The move could light the fuse on a Mideast powder-keg, and is being staunchly opposed not only by Israel but also by the Obama administration.

The most dire predictions are coming from Israeli officials. “The whole Middle East will catch on fire,” Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Defense Force major general, told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Monday.

But the warnings from the U.S. administration are nearly as stark. At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Monday with reporters, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice called the U.N. move “a backward and dangerous diversion” from efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

Rice made clear Washington would oppose any kind of U.N. action, even in the face of warnings from such key Arab allies as Saudi Arabia, that its opposition could lead to a real breach with the Arab and Muslim world.

Though the details of Abbas’ resolution are still unknown, the Palestinians have said at minimum they will ask the United Nations to grant them status similar to that of the Vatican. That could happen with a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly — well within reach for Palestinians. Going for full statehood recognition would require a majority vote on the U.N. Security Council with no veto by any permanent member. The Obama administration has promised a veto should the Palestinians go that route.

But even “Vatican status” would grant the Palestinians access to international forums such as the International Criminal Court, World Health Organization and others. Some Israelis fear that this access could result in a kind of “lawfare” that uses the imprimatur or world bodies to second-guess and delegitimize their government’s actions.

“The Israelis don’t want their generals hauled into court for something that happened during the second intifada,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

The Palestinian leadership argues that all nations can take grievances to international bodies, and they should have the same access.

“I don’t know why this is a big issue,” said Palestinian Ambassador to the U.S. Maen Areikat, at a breakfast in Washington on Tuesday morning.

“Why do other countries get to do this but not us?” He added that the Palestinian Authority “didn’t have any immediate plans to go to the ICC” with complaints about Israel.

The first step toward any U.N. resolution will require Abbas to formally notify U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that he intends to file a motion. He’s expected to do that early next week. President Obama is scheduled to speak on Sept. 21.

The Obama administration has been trying, with no success, to head off the Palestinians, both at the United Nations and with numerous trips by top officials to the Palestinian Authority capital in Ramallah.

Last month, Abbas told a delegation of U.S. members of Congress visiting his Ramallah office that he was left with no choice but to go to the United Nations because talks with Netanyahu “led nowhere,” according to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who attended the meeting.

Some Israelis, including Yadlin, said that the resolution’s passage would signal “the start a huge war of attrition against Israel,” as that country begins to face U.N. resolutions about borders and resources, while constantly having to respond to charges being filed at the ICC.

The first casualty of such a war would be the stalled peace process. It would be “the end of negotiations as we know them,” said Yadlin, describing such a scenario as a “nightmare.”

“If you say that anything over the 1967 line is now the government of Palestine,” said Makovsky, referring to Israel’s current borders, established after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day-War, “why would the Palestinians negotiate?”

In Washington, Congress has vowed to drastically cut the aid to the Palestinian Authority if the U.N. resolution is adopted. Such a step could seriously weaken the Palestinian Authority, which has been competing with the more radical Hamas movement for control of Palestinian territories. Hamas already governs Gaza.

“Cutting off aid will lead to collapse” of the Palestinian Authority, said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Abbas aide, while speaking alongside Yadlin and Makovsky. He said that such a collapse could have drastic and severe implications beyond the region, especially because Hamas stands to gain the most from a lack of strong government in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ambassador Areikat acknowledged that ending aid to the Palestinians would have a major detrimental effect, but insisted that any street protests will be peaceable and confined to Palestinian areas. “We will not tolerate any outbreak of violence,” he said.

While few believe a U.N. vote can be avoided, there are options. Some European nations — including France, Russia and others — are attempting to draft an alternate resolution that will allow Abbas to save face while pacifying Israel and the United States. Complicating matters is the fact that the Europeans are hardly working in concert and sometimes have competing interests. Ambassador Rice said the Obama administration has no interest in negotiating language on any resolution.

But even if Palestinians gain some kind of statehood recognition, said Makovsky, they and the Israelis are going to have to move forward together, even if they have “too much history and too little geography” between them.

“There will be life after New York,” he said. “These two peoples are going to have to deal with each other.”

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