September’s showdown at the UN - what happened and what might happen next? BY Luke Akehurst, Director, We Believe in Israel.
Intense diplomacy failed to prevent Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from submitting his application for Palestinian membership of the UN on Friday, 23 September, 2011.
After tough speeches by both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the General Assembly on 23 September, the Quartet ( the EU, the UN, Russia and America) issued a statement proposing a timetable for a return to talks.
It called for a ‘preparatory meeting’ within a month, followed by comprehensive proposals on borders and security within three months and an agreement by the end of 2012. However, the Quartet failed to broker agreed terms of reference for renewed negotiations.
On Sunday, 2 October, the Israeli government accepted the Middle East Quartet’s proposal for restarting negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu met with his inner cabinet of eight senior ministers and issued a statement following the meeting. “Israel welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, as called for by both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office read.
The statement added that Israel has some concerns over the proposal but that it would raise them at the appropriate time. The Israeli statement also called on the Palestinian Authority to accept the Quartet proposal and to start direct peace talks without any delay.
The US State Department welcomed Israel’s willingness to accept the Quartet’s proposal. Earlier, Netanyahu told the General Assembly that he was willing to negotiate on the basis of US ‘ideas’ with regard to borders.
Israeli sources have indicated that he would have accepted reference in some form to the 1967 borders as a basis for talks, if it came with clear conditions about the need to recognise demographic changes on the grounds. It is not clear how the Quartet believes it can compel the Palestinians to agree to engage in the process.
The diplomatic pressure put on Abbas by the US and EU so far has not succeeded in convincing him to drop his preconditions. The Palestinians will try to avoid saying a direct ‘no’ to the Quartet, but it is hard to see them dropping their preconditions and actually coming to the table.
The Palestinians remain opposed to re-entering talks with Netanyahu without a full settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of 1967 borders as the basis for talks.The Speeches Abbas gave an incendiary speech at the UN, filled with anti-Israel propaganda, which was designed to appeal to the Palestinian and wider Arab public.
He accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and the murder of civilians. He referred to Palestine as ‘the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ’, with no mention of the Jewish connection to Israel.
Netanyahu spoke more fulsomely than Abbas of the need for peace, but at the same time he was forthright in his defence of Israel’s position. He accused the Palestinians of wanting a ‘state without peace’, and reasserted his insistence that peace would be based on security arrangements that meet Israel’s needs, including an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.
He also attacked the UN itself for its anti-Israel bias. What happens next? The EU and US are trying to put pressure on the PA to return to negotiations. The US Congress has blocked the transfer of £130 million in aid to the PA, which was earmarked for 2011. The Security Council has formed a committee, consisting of representatives of all 15 members, to review the Palestinian membership request.
If the US thinks it has the seven votes necessary to dismiss the motion at this point, without it needing to use its veto, the Americans could try to move swiftly to a vote. Alternatively, the parties could take their time considering the application. They could, for example, request more information from the Palestinians, and drag the process out by weeks or months.
The Palestinian membership bid looks set to stall or be voted down in the Security Council. Therefore, the Palestinians are unlikely to wait long before turning to the option of upgrading to the status of ‘non-member state’ via a General Assembly resolution.
Israel is still concerned that the General Assembly will recognize Palestine as a non-member state, with all the associated worries about that opening the door to legal steps against Israelis in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other international forums.
A General Assembly resolution threatens to undermine the basis for any future negotiated solution, by imposing one-sided terms of reference. EU states may yet try to negotiate with the Palestinians to moderate the text of a General Assembly resolution to limit its damage to the peace process.
This would mean ensuring balanced terms of reference, including in the text the need to return to negotiations, and finding a mechanism to prevent ICC prosecutions. Some members of Netanyahu’s coalition, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are calling for punitive measures against the PA, should a resolution pass at the UN. Lieberman could pull his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the coalition at any time, leading to the collapse of the government, and Netanyahu will be concerned about being outflanked on the right in a future election.
The Quartet will now attempt to organize the ‘preparatory meeting’ between the parties within a month, as described in their statement. However, it is hard to see Abbas backing down on his preconditions, making the chances of holding the meeting look slim.
The situation on the ground remains tense. Despite two fatal incidents, with victims on both sides, impressive security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has so far prevented widespread outbreaks of violence. Nonetheless, the threat of uncontrolled escalation remains heightened, given the political climate.