Saturday, 24 September 2011

Statehood: Last Bid to Rescue Negotiations


A volunteer pastes black-and-white portraits of Palestinian youths with flags of countries which support the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the U.N. painted on them. (Photo: REUTERS - Darren Whiteside)
Published Saturday, September 24, 2011
The current Palestinian UN bid for statehood was initially driven by American efforts to rescue failed negotiations last year. It has now given PA head Mahmoud Abbas much needed popularity. But a failed bid may be more than he can handle.

During beleaguered peace negotiations in September of last year, US President Barack Obama gave a speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he said he hoped that a new member to the UN, the State of Palestine, would be present at the Assembly’s next annual session. Obama’s words reflected his efforts at the time to restart peace process negotiations, which were deadlocked for months over disputed Israeli settlement construction in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These efforts culminated in a second ‘landmark’ in the current push fore statehood, the Washington summit. The summit was meant to inaugurate a year-long negotiating process from which a new Palestinian state would emerge.

Palestinians pick on this promise in Obama’s speech and reformulated it after the Washington negotiations stalled within weeks, over the perennial issue of new settlements. Incidentally, the settlement freeze was also originally an American demand, which Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas adopted once the US president abandoned it. Accordingly, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend his declared nine-month moratorium on new settlements. The negotiations came to a fruitless halt.
With time, and as attempts to restart the talks turned hopeless, the notion of declaring statehood gained currency. Different Palestinian officials offered confused and conflicting accounts of the proposal. It was widely suggested that Palestinians would unilaterally declare statehood. But the PA later ruled out that option, instead pursuing legal channels for UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Abbas and his aides were aware of the obstacles impeding such a course, and they initially did not expect to appear before the UN podium to ask for recognition.

Sources say that Abbas saw the quest for UN recognition as a tactical maneuver aimed at restarting the negotiations. This remains his ultimate objective, a claim he repeated on several occasions, even when defending his decision to appeal to the UN. In his view, a return to negotiations would be inevitable, even if the Security Council or General Assembly accepts the statehood application. Abbas nearly achieved his aim. Numerous initiatives for relaunching negotiations were put forward by European and American envoys. But they invariably failed upon Israel’s adamant refusal to freeze settlements, “even for one day,” as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman often says.

With public support for the bid strong, frustration over its breakdown may be intense and possibly lead to non-peaceful popular action.
This being the case, the PA head finds himself bound by his pledge to go to the UN. The move enjoys strong support among the Palestinian public, although some factions, most notably Hamas, oppose it. The move has done wonders for Abbas’s popularity, turning him – perhaps for the first time ever – into a symbol of hope for the majority of Palestinians. The Palestinian public was largely infuriated by his pursuit of futile negotiations and refreshed once Abbas finally pursued an alternative.
But Abbas is not quite as enlivened by the turn of events. UN recognition will not come easily, given Washington’s determination to block it at the Security Council, either by denying the nine votes it needs or by veto. Moreover, defying American and Western wishes over the issue may have unbearable long-term consequences for the PA. The US has threatened financial sanctions if the Palestinians press their bid, and other donors might follow suit.

Abbas must also contend with the domestic repercussions of failure. With public support for the bid strong, frustration over its breakdown may be intense and possibly lead to non-peaceful popular action. Public disaffection may be further fuelled by economic difficulties in Palestine. A financial crisis is already looming for the PA, which was unable to pay public sector salaries in full for August. There have also been recent worker protests in the West Bank.

Most alarming for the Palestinians are signs that Arab governments could also be tightening the financial screws. A number of Arab donors have recently stopped transfers of pledged funds to the PA. This prompted the PLO Executive Committee’s Yasser Abed-Rabbo to complain of an “Arab financial siege.” There have been reports that some Arab states at the UN have shifted position, now pressing the PA to back down from their quest for recognition. If these reports are true, the siege may soon worsen.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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