WASHINGTON (JTA) – The path to international recognition of Palestinian statehood by September — when the Palestinians plan to bring the matter before the U.N. General Assembly — seems clear.
The question before Israel and its supporters who oppose such recognition is how to create a detour.
Some say the way to go is through diplomatic suasion. Others say there needs to be a push forward with peace initiatives. Still others believe that threatening counteractions is the best way to derail the Palestinian plan.
Israeli officials have warned that unilateral recognition of Palestine could be countered by unilateral Israeli steps, like West Bank annexation.
The only certainty is that Israel expects the fallout from such recognition of Palestine to be disastrous. Several weeks ago, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, called it a “diplomatic tsunami.”
At the moment, the Palestinian plan is to get a sympathetic nation on the 15-member U.N. Security Council, where decisions carry the weight of international law, to propose recognition, and at the same to get two-thirds of the General Assembly to recognize the state of Palestine, in itself a propaganda victory. Should the United States, as expected, veto a Security Council resolution recognizing Palestine, the Palestinians would try to invoke the rarely used General Assembly Resolution 377, also known as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, which allows the General Assembly to override the Security Council.
Such a General Assembly vote would not amount to oficial U.N. recognition of Palestine, but would provide countries with the legal cover to penalize Israel for keeping the Palestinians from establishing a state.
The latter scenario is what Israel and its friends want to avoid; its use in 1981 set the legal framework for a decade of boycotts of South Africa that ultimately helped topple that country’s apartheid regime.
Israel and its allies are in agreement on the technical approach to running the Palestinian Authority approach off the road.
Step one is to avoid the necessity of a U.S. veto in the Security Council by thwarting the nine votes that any initiative needs to pass the 15-member Security Council, absent a veto. Failure to get such a majority on the Security Council likely would inhibit Palestinian efforts to bring the matter to the General Assembly, which meets in September.
Alan Elsner, senior communications director for The Israel Project, has been meeting in New York with U.N. diplomats this week. He counted off what he said were five possible votes against the proposal on the current council: Permanent members France, Britain and the United States, and rotating members Germany and Colombia.
“If they can’t get it through the Security Council, they would lose a lot of momentum,” he said of the Palestinian statehood push.
The focus then would be to draw in at least two more Western or Western-leaning country from among the rotating ten members. There are three possibilities, according to Elsner. One is Portugal. The second is E.U. aspirant Bosnia & Herzegovina, a Muslim country that is likely to side with the West given its lingering distrust of Russia for backing Serbia during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The third is Gabon, an oil-rich West African autocracy that has close relations with France and that has been cultivated in recent years by Jewish leaders including Jack Rosen of the Council for World Jewry.
The other members of the council are permanent members Russia and China and rotating members India, Lebanon, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa.
The parallel strategy, Elsner said, is to lay the groundwork now by explaining to diplomats from 120 nations who routinely favor Palestinians that even a symbolic recognition of Palestine is no ordinary rebuke of Israel.
“The trick is to make countries aware that this is not a routine vote,” Elsner said, noting that such an effort already was underway in Congress. Key congressmen from both parties are reaching out to ambassadors to explain that such a vote would have repercussions in terms of relations with the United States.
David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which focuses on U.S. Jewish outreach internationally, said European opposition to Palestinian statehood was not a sure thing.
"How the European Union will behave matters greatly," Harris said, noting that the world’s 192 nations look to its 27 members for moral leadership. "Whether the E.U. will take a single unified position or will break down into national positions remains to be seen."
Daniel Mariaschin, the executive director of B’nai B’rith International, said that when he meets with diplomats, he points out the long-term harm to peace that U.N. recognition would bring, in the absence of a real peace deal.
“The question at the beginning of the meeting goes like this,” he said, describing his approach with foreign diplomats and leaders. “’Do you believe in a negotiated settlement as the best resolution for the conflict?’ They say ‘Yes.’ Then we say, ‘Why would you prejudge the outcome for recognizing a Palestinian state before contentious issues have been decided?’”
Mariaschin noted that every peaceful outcome in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the result of negotiations, starting with the Egypt-Israel accords negotiated by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. “Now we’re turning the clock back pre-Begin and Sadat, and it’s not a prescription for success,” Mariaschin said he tells these leaders .
Aaron David Miller, a longtime negotiator for successive U.S. administrations, outlined in a recent Washington Post Op-Ed how the initiative could boomerang on the Palestinians, causing Israel to take unilateral action.
“The Palestinian campaign will also prompt intensified Israeli settlement activity in an effort to remind Palestinians that Israeli actions are real, not virtual,” he wrote. “Should the Palestinians declare statehood, Israel will probably act to demarcate what part of the West Bank it intends to keep."
Unilateral Palestinian action also would likely alienate the Obama administration and spur Congress to cut off funds, Miller said.
Those advocating the peace tracks say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to counter the Palestinian statehood push with a peace initiative serious enough to prompt allies of the Palestinians to nudge them back to direct talks with Israel.
"How Israel engages in its public diplomacy with regard to the resumption of the peace talks and how it engages in its private diplomacy will have real impact in shaping how other countries react," Harris said. "Israel must convince the world it is absolutely dead serious about moving the peace process forward."
On Thursday, Netanyahu joined Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in announcing plans for an Israeli prime ministerial address to both chambers of Congress in the first week of May. That’s a signal of Netanyahu’s intention to present a new peace initiative.
Separately, U.S. officials have indicated that the Obama administration also is ready to re-enter the process after months of inactivity since the Palestinian walkout from direct peace talks with Israel in September, when Netanyahu refused to extend a self-imposed partial settlement freeze.
There are rumors circulating in Washington that President Obama plans to lay out his own vision even before Netanyahu’s arrival, in order to make sure the Israelis understand the American bottom line of a solution based on the 1967 borders, with adjustments.
The AJC’s Harris said Israel and the United States need to launch a "full-court press" by summer to head off recognition in the fall.
"The consequential countries are looking for signs and signals from Israel and the United States — what will the prime minister say to Congress next month, will President Obama come to Israel in the summer," Harris said. "There are a lot of important moments that can happen between now and the fall."