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Palestinians Prepare for Showdown With Washington

Palestinian officials are circulating a draft United Nations resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from all occupied Palestinian lands by November 2016 and proposing the establishment of an international protection force for the Palestinian people, setting the stage for a possible diplomatic showdown with the United States on the eve of the midterm congressional elections. ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Jewel Samad/ Getty Images
Jewel Samad/ Getty Images

Palestinian officials are circulating a draft United Nations resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from all occupied Palestinian lands by November 2016 and proposing the establishment of an international protection force for the Palestinian people, setting the stage for a possible diplomatic showdown with the United States on the eve of the midterm congressional elections.

Like many of the Palestinians’ previous diplomatic bids at the United Nations, the latest initiative has virtually no chance of being adopted, according to U.N. diplomats. It’s far from clear that the Palestinians can even garner the nine votes required for adoption of a resolution in the 15-nation council. Even if they can muster the numbers, they face a near-certain U.S. veto. "It is not going to be acceptable to the United States," said one European diplomat. This initiative, the diplomat added, appears to be "doomed from the beginning."

The likelihood of an American veto underscores the limits of the Palestinians’ diplomatic options at the United Nations. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is under increasing domestic pressure to demonstrate that he can deliver some tangible diplomatic achievement following a bloody conflict in the Gaza Strip that resulted in the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis, 66 of whom were soldiers. The U.N. claims that the vast majority of Palestinians killed were civilians but Israel has contested those claims, saying a significant number of war dead were members of the militant group Hamas, and that the extremists intentionally put civilians at risk by hiding weapons and launching rockets from crowded urban areas.

So what can the Palestinians expect to gain by pursuing action in the U.N. Security Council? Earlier this month, Abbas outlined a diplomatic road map that would require that Israel engage in negotiations with the Palestinians to set a deadline for withdrawing its troops, or else the Palestinians will renew their campaign to strengthen their statehood bid by joining more international organizations, including the International Criminal Court. That effort received a boost today when Sweden’s new prime minister, Stefan Lofven, announced that his government would join more than 130 other countries in recognizing the state of Palestine.

"We have decided to move to the Security Council to see if we can open a new door to peace," Riyad Mansour, the Palestinians’ U.N. ambassador, said in an interview Friday. "If that option is to be blocked before us, let’s say by the United States, then you know we have … options," he said, adding that these could include becoming parties to international conventions, pressing the Palestinians’ case in the U.N. General Assembly, and joining the International Criminal Court. "We will not relent."

Mansour said that his government is also in discussions with France about the possibility of convening an international peace conference to address the Middle East conflict in the event that the Palestinians’ bid for a Security Council resolution fails. "The French might be interested; the Russians might be interested," he said.

"We have been in negotiations with the Israeli side for almost 20 years," he asked. "Are we better off now than before? We are not better off."

The Palestinian strategy is driven by two basic assumptions, according to senior diplomats. The Palestinians believe they can never achieve agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state as long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in power. At the same time, they doubt that President Barack Obama is prepared to invest the sufficient personal political capital needed to even revive meaningful peace talks.

"They don’t believe they can make a deal with the Israelis as long as Netanyahu is president," said one senior Western diplomat who maintains close contacts with the Palestinians. "They want to tell the international community that they have done everything on the diplomatic front."

That leaves the Palestinians with few options. They could risk a diplomatic dustup with Washington over a plan to rally U.N. backing for a proposal declaring an end to Israel’s occupation in two years. For the time being, the Palestinians have assured the United States that they will hold off on circulating the resolution until after the U.S. elections, according to Western diplomats. The United States and the Palestinians are concerned that the delicate Middle East diplomacy could get complicated if it gets drawn into the rough-and-tumble world of American elections.

"They told us it will take several weeks — meaning, they will not push this before the midterm elections," said one senior diplomat.

Another option is that the Palestinians can rally support from European powers on a less ambitious resolution, raising hopes that the United States wouldn’t veto it. But it remains unclear how far the Palestinians would have to go to either win over the United States or to dissuade it from blocking the resolution. One senior U.N.-based diplomat said the Palestinians recognize that they will have to make substantial changes to their text to avoid a veto.

The United States has long opposed Palestinian efforts to grant a role for the Security Council in managing the crisis. But the United States has also begun to voice growing displeasure with Abbas, describing as "provocative and counterproductive" a speech he delivered last month to the U.N. General Assembly accusing Israel of conducting a "war of genocide" against Palestinians.

"We are aware of President Abbas’s plan and we continue to believe, to strongly believe, that the only way to a negotiated solution is through negotiations between the two parties," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said. Speaking to reporters outside the U.N. Security Council, Power said that the White House remains "open to something that deals with a chapter that was very, very difficult for the people of Gaza and the people of Israel," but cautioned that she wished "to be in a position where we could report something positively here, but I am not in that position, unfortunately."

At the same time, Israel hasn’t stayed out of American crosshairs, and the administration has also denounced an Israeli proposal to build 2,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, a move that State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this week could trigger condemnation of Israel "from even its closest allies."

Other key players, including Britain, Lithuania, and South Korea, have shown little appetite for a U.N. resolution, according to diplomats. But France has shown an interest in taking up the Palestinians’ cause. Following a meeting Friday with Abbas, French President François Hollande told reporters in Paris: "We will have a resolution, to be presented to the Security Council, that will say very clearly what we expect from the [peace] process and what the solution to the conflict must be."

Diplomats say they believe the Palestinians understand there will have to be substantial changes to their draft resolution in order to secure enough supporters for passage. But they would not rule out the possibility of a Security Council showdown with the United States, a clash that could set the stage for a move by the Palestinians to become a member of the International Criminal Court, and increase their chances of triggering a war-crimes investigation into alleged crimes in Gaza.

"The ICC [International Criminal Court] is something that will only happen after they have tried all the other things," said the senior diplomat. "They know if they do that there is no hope of engaging the Americans for the foreseeable future." Asked whether the Palestinians would risk such a breach, the diplomat said: "For the first time, I would say it’s a real option."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch