U.N. ploy could benefit Israel

In September, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas plans to bring a statehood petition to the United Nations. The initial plan is to bring it to the Security Council for approval. If the U.S. vetoes it, as expected, the PA will then bring it to the U.N. General Assembly, where it hopes to mobilize a vast majority to support a Palestinian state along the pre-1967-war boundaries, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

While such a ploy would not give the PA formal U.N. membership, it would legitimize PA state-building efforts and put Israel on the defensive. Consequently, there is a global diplomatic battle being waged between the PA and Israel as both prepare for the General Assembly vote. Yet the diplomatic controversy also presents an opportunity for both the United States and Israel — if they are willing to take advantage of it.

As former House Speaker Tip O'Neil once said, "All politics is local," and domestic Palestinian politics is driving the U.N. bid. Thanks to some inept U.S. diplomacy, whereby President Barack Obama called for the total cessation of all settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem, Mr. Abbas found himself in a position that he could not negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while settlements were being built. There were first indirect and then direct negotiations during Mr. Netanyahu's partial construction moratorium, but when that ended in late September, so too did the negotiations, and U.S. efforts to revive the talks proved fruitless.

Thus, for almost a year, there has been no movement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Palestinians have been growing increasingly restive, particularly under the influence of the Arab Spring. One of Mr. Abbas' responses was to reconcile his West Bank-based Fatah movement with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, but that reconciliation appears to have been short-lived as Hamas rejected Mr. Abbas' nomination of Salam Fayyad as prime minister of the proposed unity government, calling the skilled Palestinian administrator who has managed to promote both economic development and an increased sense of security on the West Bank "a collaborator with Israel." A second response was to go to the United Nations to gain support for an independent Palestinian state. While that effort would have been strengthened had Hamas and Fatah had a genuine reconciliation, the U.N. move will nonetheless enhance Mr. Abbas' domestic prestige and reinforce his position as the leader of the West Bank.

How will the U.S. and Israel will respond to the Palestinian leader's diplomatic ploy? Both insist that a Palestinian state can only come into existence through negotiations, not via a General Assembly resolution — and the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, in a rare example of bipartisan unity have threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it goes ahead with its planned U.N. move and unites with Hamas. But the U.S. and Israel could take a number of actions that would use the General Assembly session to return the two sides to negotiations.

First, the wording of the document could mirror President Obama's May 19 speech which called for a peace settlement along the 1967 lines, with land swaps and due regard for Israeli security needs. This, at one step, would eliminate the settlement issue as a barrier to the resumption of negotiations, since Israel would have to give up most of its settlements — except for those around Jerusalem — as part of a land swap.

Second, to overcome Israeli objections to such an arrangement, the document could also refer to the establishment of both Jewish and Palestinian states as part of a peace agreement. Since Mr. Netanyahu has made such a major point about the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (something that would obviate any mass return of Palestinians to Israel), it could be difficult for him to turn down such wording.

Third, the U.S. and Israel could invite Mr. Abbas to return to negotiations on the basis of the document agreed to by the General Assembly, assuming it met the above conditions. This would be a way of enabling Mr. Abbas to extricate himself from the imbroglio over the issue of Israeli settlements, strengthen his position domestically, and make it more difficult for Hamas to join a unity government — thus preserving U.S. aid. It could also avert possible mass Palestinian demonstrations at the time of the General Assembly vote.

The question, of course, is whether Mr. Netanyahu would agree to such an arrangement. Israeli elections are due in the next 24 months, and a gesture toward peace would strengthen his position among swing voters, something he, as the leader of the Likud Party, might well need if Aryeh Deri splits with the Shas Party and gets sufficient votes, as Israeli polls now indicate, to enable Tzipi Livni's Kadimah Party to form a new government. In addition, the public protests now sweeping Israel over the costs of both housing and cottage cheese are eroding Mr. Netanyahau's base of public support. Whether these factors would be sufficient to persuade Mr. Netanyahu to endorse the General Assembly resolution that would enable the resumption of negotiations is, however, a very open question.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. He is author of the forthcoming "The United States And Israel: Six Decades Of A Relationship." His email is rofreedman@comcast.net.

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