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After U.N. vote, question is whether Palestinians will use it as a stick or an olive branch

Palestinians celebrating in the West Bank city of Ramallah after the U.N. General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, Nov. 29, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Palestinians celebrating in the West Bank city of Ramallah after the U.N. General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, Nov. 29, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — How the United States treats the Palestinians’ new status as a non-member state at the United Nations depends on how Palestinians plan to use it — as cudgel or outstretched hand.

Beneath the outcries of disappointment at the lopsided U.N. vote, both the United States and Israel showed signs of acquiescence to its inevitability. There were the grim warnings of financial consequence for both the Palestinians and the United Nations, but there was also a willingness to take at face value Palestinian claims that the vote is an avenue to return to talks — something Israel and the United States have been demanding for two years.

The public statements by U.S. and Israeli officials, however, focused on the negative.

"It places further obstacles in the path to peace," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a Foreign Policy Group address after the vote on Thursday. "We have been clear that only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace that both deserve: two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable, independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement after the vote that the Palestinian initiative “violated the agreements with Israel” and that he would “act accordingly.”

That apparently presaged leaks to media outlets on Friday that he planned to build 3,000 new homes in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, including in the corridor separating Maaleh Adumim, a large Jewish settlement in the West Bank, from Jerusalem.

A broad array of Jewish groups condemned the vote, which passed by a margin of 138-9, with 41 abstentions. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in one of its rare public statements, predicted blunt and dire consequences for the Palestinians and the organization representing them in Washington and New York, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“Congress has frequently warned the PLO that there would be consequences for its relationship with the United States if the PLO refuses to demonstrate its commitment to peace with Israel,” AIPAC said. “Congress has specifically linked continued aid and the operation of the PLO office in Washington to the Palestinians not seeking statehood status at the United Nations. AIPAC applauds this congressional leadership and urges a full review of America’s relations with the PLO, including closure of the PLO’s office in Washington.”

Yet the sequence of congressional amendments introduced this week that would penalize the Palestinians for seeking statehood seemed, if anything, to retreat from punitive to wait-and-see.

Earlier this week, a slate of Republican senators led by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) introduced amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that would cut assistance to the Palestinians immediately and shut down the PLO office in Washington. The NDAA does not otherwise address the Palestinians, but the act is the most immediate vehicle for passage of legislation, as both Houses of Congress are frantically trying to pass major budget bills to head off the so-called fiscal cliff.

By Thursday morning, however, just hours before the U.N. vote, Barrasso had joined a separate Palestinian spending initiative, and one likelier to pass, spearheaded by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). That amendment to the NDAA would cut assistance to the Palestinians only if they use their new U.N. status to bring charges against Israel. The new amendment would shut down the PLO office in Washington only in the case that the Palestinians have not entered into “meaningful negotiations” with Israel.

A lawmaker on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee told JTA that the House was likely to initiate a similar wait-and-see bill. The lawmaker characterized it as a bid to see if the Palestinians would make good on suggestions that they were not in a hurry to bring charges at the International Criminal Court, and that a successful show at the United Nations could create the conditions necessary to bring the Palestinians back to talks.

In an interview earlier this month, Maen Areikat, the PLO envoy to Washington, told JTA that the U.N. vote would mitigate the factor that has kept the Palestinians from talks until now: Israel’s continued settlement expansion. The vote, recognizing “Palestine” as within the pre-1967 lines, would grant the Palestinians assurances that lands they claim have international recognition, even if Israel continues to build Jewish settlements there.

“After we get recognition within 1967 borders, we are willing to engage Israelis,” Areikat said.

Areikat, like other Palestinian officials, would not count out using U.N. bodies like the International Criminal Court to seek redress for what they say are illegal Israeli actions. But he also noted that even with the enhanced status of non-member state, the road to such actions was fraught with bureaucracy and unlikely to happen anytime soon.

On Thursday, two influential think-tankers otherwise known for their hawkish views testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the wake of November’s mini-war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Thursday’s vote.

The two men — Robert Satloff, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations — answered questions from lawmakers on whether the U.N. vote should trigger U.S. penalties on the Palestinians.

Satloff said that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and PLO leader, needed to show the Palestinian people that there was an alternative to Hamas’ preferred course: terrorism.

“We have to encourage him to choose the diplomatic path,” Satloff said of the Palestinian leader. “It really comes down to invigorating an alternative.”

Another witness, Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, shook her head in disagreement, saying the Palestinians needed disincentives to prevent uncooperative behavior.

Back in New York, the lopsided vote at the United Nations, and the presence of so many American allies in the “yes” and “abstention” columns, suggested a frustration with the Middle Eastern stalemate and a hope that the vote could bring about a breakthrough.

“I would like this recognition to be used in a positive way by the Israelis and Palestinians to relaunch a sincere peace process,” Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said in a statement after his country voted for the enhanced status for Palestine.

“Everything which might jeopardize potential progress towards a negotiated solution must be avoided on both sides,” Fabius said. “The obligation is still to resume dialogue and negotiation without preconditions, with a view to establishing a lasting peace guaranteeing Israel’s security and an actual, viable state for the Palestinians.”

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