Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images

New UN move reflects Palestinian leadership’s crisis

Analysis: US-led negotiations have failed to end the occupation, but Abbas sees few alternatives

Nobody's expecting any change in the Middle East diplomatic landscape — much less in the facts on the ground — to result from this week's Palestinian effort to win U.N. Security Council backing for an end to Israel's occupation. For one thing, the near certainty of a U.S. veto precludes adopting any such resolution, and Israel has ignored previous Security Council resolutions on the occupation. The Palestinian leadership's goal may simply be to draw attention to the fact that the long-stalled peace process has left in place an occupation long deemed unacceptable by the international community. 

The Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents Palestinians at the United Nations and in talks with Israel, said Monday it would on Wednesday submit a draft resolution setting a two-year deadline for an end to the Israeli occupation of territories conquered in the war of June 1967 — the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the rest of the the West Bank. It's not clear whether the PLO could muster the majority of votes in the 15-member council; even if the resolution passes, the U.S. and any of the other permanent members (Russia, China, the U.K. and France) can veto it.

“Whether we have the nine votes at the Security Council or we don’t, the decision has been taken to present the Palestinian-Arab resolution in the Security Council on Wednesday,” said Wasel Abu Youssef, a PLO official.

Since the Palestinians are not represented in the Security Council, they need a sitting member to propose the resolution, and they appears to be relying on Jordan for that, although Jordan’s intentions remain unclear.

The PLO’s initiative is unlikely to succeed, but Israel seems more immediately concerned about a resolution introduced by France, with British and German support, setting a two-year timetable for concluding a permanent agreement between Israel and the PLO that includes the creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 boundaries, with agreed-upon land swaps. Although the French resolution is not as strong as the Palestinian one, the Israeli leadership is strongly opposed to it — and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday met with French President François Hollande in hopes of squelching it. 

“We know the Palestinians don’t have the votes they need in the Security Council, because clearly the United States won’t support it,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Elgindy said the Palestinian decision to present a competing resolution to the French one might be an attempt to bolster the European initiative — which the U.S. has lobbied against — by proposing something that Israel and the U.S. would like even less.

Other analysts suggested the timing may be a reaction to the death last week of Ziad Abu Ein, a Palestinian minister who was in charge of monitoring Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and died after an altercation with Israeli security forces during a nonviolent protest.

“The [Palestinian Authority] is looking for a way to respond to the death of Abu Ein, and they feel they have to do something, but in the grand scheme, this is a tactical move, not strategy,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

He and other analysts see the move fitting in a pattern of Palestinian leaders trying to compensate for their lack of diplomatic leverage by occasionally threatening to turn to the international community but then dialing back such moves, which are always opposed by the U.S. 

“Earlier this year, when the talks were still going and the Israelis failed to release the fourth batch of prisoners like they agreed to, the Palestinians made it clear that ‘if this doesn’t go through, we’re signing onto all of these [U.N. agencies and treaties],’ and they did,” Munayyer said.

“There’s a sense of driving with the brakes on. This tells us the leadership is running out of options and they are trying to space out what little leverage it has over time,” he added.

Despite piecemeal attempts to internationalize a solution to the conflict  by turning to international law and institutions — backed by moves such as Sweden’s recent recognition of Palestinian statehood, along with similar legislative proposals in France and Britain — analysts say the PLO remains wedded to the assumption that the Palestinian fate is largely in the hands of the U.S.

“They still believe they have to come back through Washington for any solution and won’t take any steps down the internationalization road that will burn bridges with Washington,” Munayyer said.

That's despite the fact that two decades of U.S.-led negotiations have failed to end the occupation and have, in fact, witnessed a steady deepening of Israel's grip on the West Bank and East Jerusalem through increasing Israeli settlement.

Netanyahu, who met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome on Monday, condemned the Palestinian proposal as a “unilateral” step that disregarded the official peace process. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Palestinian negotiators on Tuesday in London.

Some analysts have called attention to the asymmetry of U.S. criticism of Palestinian unilateral actions without doing the same for Israel.  

“The Americans have suggested that going to the U.N. is a unilateral act, which they oppose ... This is American absurdity at its best,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and currently the Middle East director for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The yardstick should not be degree of unilateralism but a degree of legality, rightness and justness. How can you compare an act of going to the U.N. — an international body of repute — to an illegal act of state violence like expansion of settlements and expropriation of land and other measures daily undertaken by Israel unilaterally?”

He added, “Both are unilateral, but one is legal, and the other is illegal. How can those possibly be equivalent?” 

But sporadic Palestinian turns to the U.N. have yet to be incorporated into a wider strategy to build Palestinian leverage, Levy said. The PLO’s success in winning recognition as an observer state at the U.N. two years ago has translated into little change on the ground.

He questioned whether a leadership hard-wired to running the Palestinian Authority, now part of the administrative and security architecture of the status quo, is capable of disrupting that status quo.

“It’s hard to see how a Palestinian leadership that exists under the watchful and permanent eye of an occupying authority — with its very existence in a way depending on Israel through tax revenues and the ability to travel in and out — could lead the challenge to Israeli impunity,” Levy said.

“Palestinian leaders will continue with symbolic actions which sound good for a few days but have no real impact on the dynamics or the problem,” he said.

With wire services

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