Palestinians' gambit for UN recognition wobbles

Even as the Arab League threw its weight behind the Palestinian Authority's bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state, officials are having second thoughts.

By , Correspondent

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    A Palestinian woman and a child walked to a celebration earlier this month for land that was returned to Palestinians after Israel rerouted a section of its controversial barrier separating the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit (in background) and the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah.
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After 20 years of negotiations with Israel and no lasting peace, Palestinians are pursuing a more unorthodox route: getting the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an independent state – and, ideally, welcome it as a new UN member.

Two-thirds of Palestinians support the UN bid, which has lifted their expectations of sovereignty.

But now, with the potential vote just two months away and the paperwork due this month, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials appear to be getting cold feet. The United States has vowed to veto the move, all but guaranteeing that Palestinians would be denied full UN membership.

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While the UN could instead make a symbolic declaration or upgrade the PA's observer status, officials are increasingly worried that a symbolic but toothless measure could prompt popular frustration and anger that would weaken the PA and strengthen hard-liners like Hamas.

"We need practical help in ending the occupation. Symbolic or declarative achievements [are] not exactly what we are looking for – although useful – [they're] not good enough," says Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib. "The Palestinian leadership has been promising or expecting to deliver in September. When it fails, it will undermine its public standing and strengthen the standing of the opposition."

The Palestinians are still considering their options. Today they sought the advice of neighbors on the UN move at a meeting of the Arab League in Doha, Qatar while chief negotiator Saeb Erekat drew up a paper laying out the pros and cons of various strategies at the UN, according to Israel Radio. The Arab League later announced that it will ask the UN for recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

Detractors on all sides

Indeed, members of the Islamist Hamas movement in charge of the Gaza Strip argue that the statehood bid is fundamentally flawed.

"[The late Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat had announced a state in the 1980s, and many countries recognized Palestine as a state, but what did he gain?" asks Ammar Ahmed, a young Hamas policeman and member of a Hamas armed wing in Gaza. "Nothing but a stupid useless peace process that has harmed the Palestinian cause and the legal struggle of the Palestinians to defy the Israeli occupation.

"Even if [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas succeeded and got some support from the Arabs and some friendly countries, Israel may reoccupy Gaza and intensify its occupation of the West Bank," says Mr. Ahmed, who worries that Israel would stop providing water and electricity and could withhold the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA. "This may be the last nail in the coffin of the already bankrupted PA. This once again proves the legal armed resistance is the best way to get statehood."

The UN campaign has spooked Israel, which views it a unilateral move that violates past peace treaties between the Palestinians and Israel.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened retaliation, saying that his staff has prepared a "basket of unilateral responses."

But Palestinians appear undeterred by the prospect of conflict; three in four expect the PA to follow up the UN vote with moves to enforce Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, according to a late June poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah.

"Obviously, those most worried about this are the [Palestinian] commanders of the security services who are concerned about the increased chances for conflict with demonstrators," says PCPSR director Khalil Shikaki in an e-mail.

Israeli security forces, too, are bracing for mass protests pegged to the UN move and inspired by the spirit of popular demonstration and civil disobedience spreading through the region.

Israel is also concerned that formal UN support for an independent Palestine could play into a broader campaign to delegitimize Israel's democratic credentials, risking a pariah status similar to apartheid South Africa.

US likely to be an obstacle at UN

President Obama and US lawmakers, seeking to protect Israel and viewing the UN move as a challenge to its leadership on the peace process, have strongly opposed the statehood bid. On June 29, the US Senate passed a unanimous resolution urging Palestinian leaders to "cease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process," specifically calling out the UN campaign. If the PA fails to cease such efforts, the resolution warned, Congress could place restrictions on the roughly half-billion dollars in annual aid it sends to the PA.

Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri believes that Abbas's aides are looking for an exit strategy. "They are afraid of stopping aid from the US. They are afraid of Palestinian protests," he says.

The UN move coincides with a deadline for a peace deal declared by Obama last year at a peace conference with both Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also marks the conclusion of a two-year Palestinian state-building plan that has won Prime Minister Salam Fayyad international praise.

In order for a state to gain UN membership, the Security Council must recommend a General Assembly vote. Since the US is one of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, such a recommendation is almost certain to be withheld. So the Palestinians are now likely to seek confirmation as an observer state or push for a General Assembly resolution on statehood – decisions with symbolic value but little impact in practice. Palestinian officials are already dialing back expectations.

"How can we be a full member without getting the Israelis out of our territories?" says Mahmoud Labadi, a spokesman for the international relations arm of Abbas's Fatah party. A UN vote on observer status, he says, represents "external pressure against Israel.... It's an important political tool to tell the world that Israel is an occupying state."

Karam Alborno, the owner of a computer shop in Gaza City, agrees. "We know that the resolution will not pass in the UN because of the American veto, but such a step goes in the right direction to tell Israel and the whole world that we want a state and will get it sooner or later," he says. "I think when the efforts to get a state are foiled by Israel, America, and their allies, Abbas should not get back to negotiations. He has to sue Israel in international courts."

Negotiations still on their mind

Abbas still prefers negotiations, he has emphasized in recent weeks, portraying the UN vote as simply the next best option. US envoys have visited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to feel out whether there's flexibility on a return to talks, which stalled last fall over the Palestinian precondition for a freeze in Israeli settlement-building.

Mr. Masri says the Palestinians are probably willing to drop that precondition if Israel accepts Obama's call to negotiate based on the 1967 Green Line with land swaps. Mr. Netanyahu has resisted this so far, calling those borders "indefensible."

A former Palestinian negotiator said the UN bid seems like a tactic aimed at improving the Palestinian position when talks resume, but said that tactic lacks a broader strategy to support it. "So you become a member state of the UN – what more is it going to give you than not being a member state? Israel occupied Lebanon for two decades, and it is still occupying [the Golan Heights in] Syria. The UN hasn't done anything about it," says the negotiator, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of his criticism.

But even if the move isn't ultimately fruitful, many Palestinians see it as the PA's effort to be proactive amid a diplomatic impasse with Israel.

"For the time being, this is all they've got," says Amad Otallah, taking a break from shopping at Ramallah's Plaza mall. "It sure beats stomping your feet and crying about it. At this stage, you get what you can get."

Ahmed Aldabba contributed reporting from Gaza City, Gaza.

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