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Palestinians Mount Efforts for Statehood

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 3, 2011

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The recent decision by UNESCO to admit Palestine as a full member (NYT) triggered a U.S. law that would cut off U.S. funding to the agency. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is set to meet on November 14 to discuss whether to hold a vote on the Palestinian bid for statehood, one that Washington has said it will veto. The Palestinians will seek a vote even if they lose, "because they want to force the international community to address the issue," says CFR Middle East expert Robert M. Danin. In the background, he says, efforts are afoot by the United States, working closely with others in the Middle East Quartet, "to try to find a way for the parties to get back to negotiations and focus on the issues of borders and security."

In September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas put in a bid for statehood at the UN, in effect rejecting the negotiations for a two-state solution with Israel that had broken down. What's happened since?

After Abbas submitted his request to the UN Security Council for statehood, the Council tasked a special committee to study the proposal. Many people thought the issue had just gone away because the situation has been quiet ever since. But in fact, it is expected that this committee will refer its recommendations back to the Security Council in the next ten days or so and then the Security Council is going to have to take up this issue.

How many votes are needed in the Security Council?

The Palestinians have been lobbying heavily to try to garner nine votes on the Security Council, which are needed for passage. On Monday, Bosnia, a Council member, announced that it would not support the resolution, it would abstain. This means the Palestinians do not have nine votes. But this still is very much in play and could change. The Palestinians would like to take this to a vote, even if they go down in defeat, because they want to force the international community to address the issue.

Can't they go to the UN General Assembly for some kind of recognition?

Yes, they can go to the General Assembly for non-member statehood recognition. Meanwhile, the Palestinians went to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris where they were elected to membership. Following the agreement to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO, the Palestinian representative in Geneva announced the Palestinians would be pursuing membership in some sixteen other UN bodies.

The United States appears to be working closely through the Middle East Quartet as the vehicle toward advancing the diplomatic track.

So, we are soon going to see a great deal of effort and activity within various international fora. If the Palestinians go to the General Assembly, it is likely they can gain a majority. The UN effort has not gone away. But it is already having repercussions. The UNESCO vote triggered a U.S. law [which requires] the United States to suspend its funding of UNESCO, which amounts to over a fifth of the UNESCO budget. Most recently, [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an acceleration of settlement activity (Haaretz) in eastern Jerusalem and in two settlements nearby, and a halt to financial transfers to the Palestinians.

President Obama has said that the United States would veto the Security Council effort (Telegraph), if it came to that. And being forced to cut off funding to UNESCO has put the United States in a position where it seems to have limited tools to work with. Is the U.S. role now diminished?

The United States appears to be working closely through the Middle East Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) as the vehicle toward advancing the diplomatic track. There was a Quartet statement issued after Netanyahu and Abbas spoke at the General Assembly, in which they called for the parties to subsequently meet with the Quartet representatives.

They did meet last week in Jerusalem with the Israelis and Palestinians separately. So there is an effort afoot to try to find a way for the parties to get back to negotiations and focus on the issues of borders and security. But, obviously these efforts are taking place in the shadow of the Palestinian initiative.

We may be seeing a certain degree of posturing or psychological warfare to try to affect international diplomatic efforts toward Iran to gain greater leverage.

Added to that was the recent prisoner exchange of [Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit in exchange for some one thousand Palestinian prisoners. This has had an effect on internal Palestinian politics. You have a renewed effort at resuscitating the unity efforts between Fatah and Hamas. They had reached agreement in May on a series of measures, but that agreement was never implemented because the two sides could not agree on the terms. But [there might be a meeting soon] between Abbas and Khalid Mashal of Hamas to try to reinvigorate that effort.

Israel is surrounded by forces that are not very friendly to them, and yet seems very reluctant to make any concessions to the Palestinians.

There are two schools of thought in Israel. One school of thought is that there is a great deal of change taking place in the region and therefore, it is imperative for Israel to act quickly and seize whatever possibilities that exist, lest they go away. That school of thought would pressure Netanyahu to make further concessions, such as what allowed the Shalit deal to go forward.

On a more strategic level, there is another school of thought, which is that Israel is witnessing dramatic change all around it: in Syria, in Jordan, a potential succession scenario in Saudi Arabia, and most importantly in Egypt. All these factors combined, according to this school, argue for hunkering down, strengthening Israel, and seeing how the situation plays out and not making any dramatic steps because the situation is simply too fluid. That is the dominant view, the view that Netanyahu adheres to, but it is not the sole view.

Israeli press reports suggest Netanyahu is working very hard behind the scenes to persuade his eight-man security cabinet to give their support for a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (Haaretz) if necessary. What do you make of this?

One has to take all of this with great caution. While we have a lot of stories that are broken in the Israeli press, you also have a lot of completely erroneous reporting in the Israeli press. The challenge is to try and decipher the two.

Secondly, we may be seeing a certain degree of posturing or psychological warfare to try to affect international diplomatic efforts toward Iran to gain greater leverage. This could be a tactic, putting out stories about imminent military action in order to try to affect international decision-making. But at the end of the day, I do not think we will get a public warning about an attack. Israel, when it wants to keep a secret, can keep a secret, as we saw with the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

How would you describe the relationship between the United States and Israel, given that it is election season in the United States and the Israelis have failed to make any concessions on freezing settlements that President Obama sought.

We saw in the speech given by President Obama at the UN General Assembly that there has been an effort by the administration to patch things up with Prime Minister Netanyahu. We've subsequently seen American diplomatic efforts pursued through the Quartet. So, I don't think the relationship is as tense as it had been before.

The United States clearly criticized the Palestinians for triggering the UNESCO, vote and it's reacted quite strongly against UNESCO as a result. The announcement yesterday by Israel on accelerated settlement activity combined with possible suspension of Palestinian assistance is going to raise an issue that the administration is going to clearly want to handle quietly, but firmly, with the Israelis. They will not see this as a positive development because it's just leading the parties away from negotiations not toward them, which would be the U.S. objective.

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