Report

The Palestinians Decide to Roll the Dice at the United Nations

A new Palestinian resolution setting a timeline for an Israeli withdrawal risks a serious rupture with the United States.

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This article has been corrected.

The Palestinians this week shrugged off appeals by Secretary of State John Kerry to shelve a U.N. bid to advance its statehood drive, submitting a draft U.N. Security Council resolution demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied Palestinian lands by the end of 2017. It has virtually zero chance of being adopted.

And yet the Palestinian gambit raised the political stakes for the Obama administration, which has been straining to avoid a messy U.N. collision that risks culminating in a U.S. veto.

The United States has long opposed a role for the U.N. Security Council in the Middle East peace process. Washington is particularly concerned that a Palestinian push to secure fresh U.N. pressure on Israel now could backfire, provoking a strong reaction from Israeli officials as they head into election season.

Israel has appealed to the United States to veto any potential U.N. Security Council action. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Kerry that the Palestinian initiative would fuel violence in the region and threaten Israel’s security. He said Israel would refuse to abide by U.N. demands over its security policy. “We will not accept attempts to dictate to us unilateral moves on a limited timetable,” he said Monday.

The State Department has sought to assure Israel that it will block any U.N. resolution that threatens its security and risks undercutting the prospects of a negotiated settlement to the crisis. Kerry, meanwhile, pressed the Palestinians and other regional leaders to stay out of the council.

But with Washington facing mounting pressure from European allies to play a more active role during the United Nations debates, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this week that Washington is open to some form of Security Council action that doesn’t “prejudge” negotiations between the parties. Council diplomats said the U.S. has not detailed what precise steps it is willing to take in the Security Council, but it has been open to discussions about the possibility of supporting a weaker resolution without the deadlines proposed by the Palestinians and the French.

A senior Russian official told reporters this week that the U.S. has circulated its own draft resolution on the Palestinian crisis, suggesting it is prepared to support some action in the council. The official, Gennady Gatilov, did not provide any details on the American proposal. Kerry, however, insisted that no decision has been made to introduce any resolution at the U.N. “We’ve made no determination about language, approaches specific resolutions,” he said.

In New York, the Palestinian initiative set the stage for a round of frosty winter diplomacy. European and American diplomats are upset that the Palestinians decided to press ahead with a resolution that stands no chance of passage. “The move shows the Palestinians are not really interested in achieving an outcome, but in provoking a public standoff with the United States on the U.N. stage,” said one European diplomat.

There are clear risks for the Palestinians, who face a potentially damaging split with the United States and the threat of new Congressional sanctions. Even Arab governments, including Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, have urged the Palestinians not to force a showdown with the U.S. on a draft that is doomed to fail. Jordan, the lone Arab country on the Security Council, is urging the Palestinians to seek a compromise that could bring Washington on board. “Jordan doesn’t want a confrontation in the Security Council,” said one council diplomat. “They know it would go straight to a veto. They would rather be working to get a consensus text. But that will take time.”

The Palestinians, though, argue that they have no other option. Palestine’s U.N. envoy, Riyad Mansour, told reporters recently that the Palestinian leadership has tried for more than 20 years to secure a state through U.S.-brokered talks with Israel. They have nothing to show for it, he added, while continuing to watch what Palestinians see as their homeland covered by Israeli settlements. Mansour has warned that if the Security Council won’t support their efforts then they will go to the U.N. General Assembly to make their case. While the General Assembly’s decisions are not legally binding on U.N. members, the Palestinians could use the venue to launch its bid to join world bodies like the International Criminal Court, solidifying its standing as a internationally-recognized state.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said that the Palestinians are testing the limits of what they can achieve diplomatically at a time when relations between the United States and Israel are particularly strained. “They don’t have that much to lose,” he said.

Back home, Ibish said, the Palestinians face pressure “to do some to shake things up and to show there is some utility in pursuing a diplomatic strategy.” On the international front, he added, the Palestinians are testing the diplomatic waters.

“What is the ultimate downside?” Ibish said. “Sure, they can get the veto and have tense relations with the United States. But West and the U.S. are not going to force the downfall of the Palestinian Authority over this. They are too useful to the Americans and the Israelis.”

For the time being, the Palestinians lack the minimum nine votes required for adoption of the resolution in the 15-nation council, according to diplomats. Several diplomats said that the Palestinians are not likely to push for a vote until after the holidays. “This thing is going into the fridge until at least January,” said the European diplomat.

Mansour said the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was open to further talks with U.S., European, and Arab governments. “The fact that we are submitting the draft … is not closing the door for continuation of the negotiations with all of our partners … our traditional base and our European friends,” Mansour said Wednesday night. “We will continue negotiating with all of them, and with the Americans if they are ready and willing.”

In the end, the Palestinian will need to win the backing of France if they have any hope of securing enough votes to get their resolution adopted. Without such support, the Palestinians would not be able to muster enough support to force the United States into casting its veto.

Paris, which is seeking a broader role for itself in dealing with the Middle East crisis, has pressed for the adoption of a separate resolution that would call for an immediate resumption of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Their draft resolution sets a two-year timetable for the talks to conclude.

French officials share the Palestinians’ view that decades of U.S. brokered negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have failed to deliver peace. But France has advised the Palestinians to avoid a confrontation with Washington and to try to fashion a compromise text that could win Washington’s support. Paris hopes the adoption of such a resolution could be followed up by an international conference that would increase the number of countries supporting the Middle East peace process. On Wednesday, France opened its own negotiations over a competing text with Jordan, Germany, and Britain.

The Palestinians are generating growing public support for their statehood drive, particularly from Europe. Lawmakers in France, Ireland, and Spain have adopted non-binding resolution calling on their governments to recognize the Palestinian state.* On Oct. 30, the Swedish government announced it would recognize a Palestinian state. Sweden is the 135th country to recognize the state of Palestine, but only the first from Western Europe. The European Parliament, meanwhile, passed a non-binding resolution Wednesday recognizing Palestinian statehood “in principle,” a largely symbolic move that highlighted the need for Israel and Palestine to seek agreement on a two state solution.

U.S. and European officials are concerned that a showdown at the United Nations could have serious consequences on the ground, fueling a cycle of tit for tat diplomatic reprisals by Israel and Palestinians that could result in an outbreak of violence.

Kerry traveled to the region earlier this week in an effort to head off the Palestinian bid, holding meetings with European Foreign Ministers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Arab diplomats. Kerry also pleaded with the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to back down. But those talks went nowhere, and Kerry put off plans to return to the region this weekend to convince President Mahmoud Abbas to back down. State Department officials said Kerry may make a last-minute trip to the region this weekend but haven’t given definitive word on whether he will go.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, the top U.S. diplomat made it clear he preferred avoiding a potential confrontation at the U.N. that could spillover into Israel’s March election.

“We understand the frustrations of the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas and those who are pushing hard, because they don’t see another course at this moment,” Kerry said. But he said Security Council action on the eve of Israel’s March election could have “unintended consequences.” The Obama administration is widely believed to want Netanyahu replaced by a center-left government that might be more open to sustained peace talks with the Palestinians.

“It’s very difficult and complicated because we believe very deeply that nobody should somehow interfere or do something that might be perceived of as interfering in the course of that election.” he said.

Correction, Dec. 19, 2014: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the German parliament had voted to recognize Palestine. German lawmakers have actually yet to make that move. (Return to reading.)

Brendan Smialowski/ Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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