Will the Palestinians Settle for a Rain-Check at the United Nations?

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds his hands to his face as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the 66th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. (Photo: Seth Wenig / AP)

Move along, there’s nothing to see here.

The much vaunted September fireworks between Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinians at the United Nations is turning out to be a rather soggy squib. As things stand, by virtue of the choices made by President Mahmoud Abbas in the face of considerable pressure from his longtime sponsors in Washington, it appears unlikely that there’ll be any vote at all this month on matters Palestinian in either the  General Assembly or the Security Council.

That’s because, as we noted last week, Abbas and his delegation are thus far confining themselves to a formal application to the Security Council for U.N. membership, which is  certain not to pass. Either it will  be  defeated by a U.S. veto or by a failure to muster the nine affirmative votes that would require a veto to reverse it, or — more likely — it will be parked in bureaucratic-diplomatic limbo. A proposal to admit a new member state that is opposed by any existing member states is referred for study to a technical committee of Council members. And that’s a process that could take weeks, or months.

But even if matters were brought to a vote this week, the U.S. may not have to isolate itself by wielding its veto on Israel’s behalf — because the Palestinians aren’t guaranteed the nine ayes to carry a resolution. The U.S. and Germany are committed to voting no to recognizing Palestine as a member state absent Israel’s consent, and France, Britain, India, Colombia, Nigeria, Gabon and Bosnia are all possible abstentions.

This, as they say, is known. So it would have been obvious to the Palestinian leadership that to use the U.N. to build their leverage by upgrading their status and affirming the principle that the international community expects Palestinian statehood to be based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital — surely the whole point of exercise — Abbas would have to take  the matter to the General Assembly. There,  a recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in the ’67 territories would pass with overwhelming support, including that of some of the Security Council abstainers. (Upgrading the Palestinians’ status and codifying the parameters for a two-state solution are not the same as recognizing a nation-state that doesn’t yet exist.)

Israel has been desperate to avoid a General Assembly vote in support of the ’67 parameters, precisely because it hopes to force the Palestinians to settle for less. And as the combination of Obama’s performance and the statements of his Republican challengers  suggests, if the matter were left up to the U.S. to mediate, Israel might, in fact, get away with setting its own terms.

That may be why France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy was blunt in warning that the world could not longer afford to leave an issue as important as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the U.S. to deal with alone  — with occasional backing vocals by the “Quartet”, comprising Russia, the E.U. and the affable U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon. While Obama scolded the Palestinians for daring to come to the U.N. and draw attention to the failure of two decades of U.S.-led negotiations to yield results, Sarkozy was more attuned to the danger sending Abbas home empty-handed, which he warned “risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East.”

Instead, Sarkozy urged a middle path, promising to support a General Assembly resolution that would upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation and would codify the parameters within which a peace agreement would be negotiated,  setting a one-year deadline for the parties to negotiate a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders (a boundary whose omission from Obama’s speech had been gleefully hailed by Israel’s far-right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman).

But at the time of writing, the Palestinian leadership doesn’t seem especially inclined to accept Sarkozy’s offer of support in the General Assembly, at least not yet. “President [Mahmoud] Abbas doesn’t want [people] to suspect we are not serious by pleading to two committees,” a top aide, Nabil Shaath, said Wednesday. “We will give some time to the Security Council to consider first our full membership request before heading to the General Assembly.”

If he holds to that position, Abbas will have to go home empty handed, telling his people that he has filed a statehood request that is pending (although on no time frame) — and that he reserves the right to go to the General Assembly — but would they now please go home and stop demonstrating lest it lead to clashes with the Israelis. Just how long Abbas will be able to resist the sort of democratic wave that swept aside his erstwhile geopolitical godfather, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, is a matter of some debate. But there’s a growing danger that violence could be provoked not by angry Palestinians but by militant Israeli settlers looking to wreck any prospect for a two-state solution.

Haaretz security correspondents Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel noted Wednesday that “paradoxical as it may sound, the IDF and Shin Bet security service high command is more worried now about the Jews in the West Bank than about the Arabs. The radical fringes of the settler movement have been demonstrating palpable excitement for some days now over the Palestinian move, which could spur them to dangerous provocations.”

So Abbas, already politically vulnerable, will be returning into what could be an increasingly tense environment, having raised some degree of expectations, but with little by way of tools to transform the situation and his ability to keep a lid on it steadily corroding.

Sarkozy’s statements about the risk of violence, and his support for a General Assembly resolution, seemed to make public the privately expressed concerns of European diplomats that the more successful Obama is in scaring Abbas into retreat, the more it will reinforce the intransigence of the Netanyahu government in resisting the international consensus on the parameters of a two-state deal.  Netanyahu appears determined to make his U.N. visit a kind of victory lap, which may boost his own domestic standing but will put another nail in Abbas’ political coffin.

Omar Dajani, a former legal adviser to the PLO in previous negotiations with Israel, warned Wednesday that “if the Palestinians return to Ramallah with nothing but a dead draft Security Council resolution in hand — an outcome they could have predicted a year ago — they shouldn’t expect a ticker tape parade. The crowds are more likely to demand that a new team be fielded the next time around.”

Of course, Abbas will not be entirely empty handed. He’ll reserve the right to go back to the General Assembly in the next couple of months (although the world’s attention won’t be as focused on Palestinian rights as it is now). And as consolation, Obama and the Europeans may craft some new plan for renewed talks, with a strict timetable, and references to some of the parameters demanded by the Palestinians. Even then, Palestinians have seen it all before: The PLO first declared statehood in the West  Bank and Gaza in 1988.  The Oslo Accords also had a timetable and parameters — it passed its own deadline for a final agreement in 1999. President Bush’s 2002 Roadmap scheduled the completion of final-status negotiations by 2005. The same President’s November 2007 Annapolis initiative envisaged a year of talks on a, uh, “shelf agreement”. (The term speaks for itself.) President Obama told the U.N. a year ago that the peace process he’d launched could see a Palestinian state take its place in the international body right now. And so on.

It’s notable, actually, that while the Palestinians are represented at the U.N. by aging veterans (and 18-year beneficiaries) of the Oslo process, Israel today is led by younger men who came of age fiercely opposing Oslo, their boundless, uh, confidence honed by their success in stopping it in its tracks, and by their ability to bend the White House to their will. It appears, sometimes, that while the Palestinian leadership is trying in vain to complete a process that stalled a decade ago, the Israelis have moved on, and are dictating the game.

By going to the U.N., Abbas had flashed defiance at both the Israelis and their enablers in Washington by introducing elements to the game beyond their control. The U.S. response has been a full-court press to restore their own control and shield Israel from an unwelcome challenge to its negotiating terms. While the Obama Administration will count it as a victory if it sends Abbas home with no General Assembly vote, Dajani warns, “the next time Palestine comes to the U.N. — and it will — the U.S. will find its credibility and authority further weakened. And if it refuses to play fair with the Palestinians’ current leadership, it may well have to contend with less sporting players next season.”