26 September 2011
Following dramatic speeches by Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the United Nations podium, many key UN member states are determined to get the sides back to the negotiating table. However, last week’s furious and sincere behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by the Quartet - the United States, EU, UN and Russia - to parley Palestinian unilateral statehood demands into a renewed bilateral peace process are being undermined by several obstacles that remain unaddressed. While Netanyahu repeated offers to negotiate with his Palestinian counterpart and even offered to meet with Abbas in the UN building, there are several reasons why Abbas can be expected to remain determined to stay the unilateral course while exploiting the UN as the Palestinian diplomatic battlefield.

First, Abbas’s uncompromising speech that angered many international leaders and diplomats was just the latest indication that the Palestinians are determined to continue driving down the unilateral road to statehood, whatever the price. Abbas stalwart and Fatah senior Nabil Shaath said on September 25th , “the battle to have Palestine join the UN will continue”.

For his part, Abbas remains fixed on the Palestinian version of the unilateral “Kosovo Strategy” that began in late 2008, when the Palestinian leadership understood that they would never receive a better offer or even the same one as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered and which Abbas rejected, noting to the 'Washington Post', “The gaps were wide”. Many European diplomats remain unaware of this core unshakable Palestinian determination that drives Abbas to refuse to return to the negotiating table with Israel, and which is ratcheting up EU frustration with Abbas specifically and inflaming overall tensions towards the Palestinians and Israelis.

Why has Abbas become virtually 'negotiation proof'?

Abbas suffers from immense internal pressure from senior members of his own Fatah Party and other PLO leaders to go all the way even at the risk of alienating the United States. In fact, the Palestinian Chairman had opposed applying for UN membership to the Security Council preferring to go directly to the General Assembly. However, he ended up submitting to PLO counter demands and to those of its leading Fatah faction who have long been hostile to US interests and will engage in activity to embarrass the US by forcing the United States to act alone in leveling a possible Security Council veto if the Palestinians convince nine members to vote “yes”. Shaath told the media that, “the Palestinians would not be deterred by US and Israeli threats to stop financial aid. “We’ll exchange Arab aid for US aid”, and added that “we have the votes in the Security Council and no one can force us to save Obama from this embarrassment.”

Second, it appears to be 'payback time' for one of the Palestinians biggest supporters, Hugo Chavez, the virulently anti-American pro-Iranian regime Latin American leader. According to a recent report in the Palestinian news outlet 'Ma'an' that quoted PA Foreign Minister Riad Al Malki, the Fatah led unilateral campaign in Latin America was financed by Chavez who provided several million dollars and the comfort of his private plane to the Palestinian delegation. Chavez and his fellow travelers in the Fatah and PLO share the objective of Isolating and embarrassing the United States at every opportunity.

Third, Abbas’ determination to stay the unilateral course also explains why the settlement issue has become the new Sine Qua Non of the peace process. Abbas and other PA leaders have refused to take one step towards bilateral negotiations until they are satisfied that Israel completely ceases any building starts in Jerusalem or anywhere in the disputed areas eastward in the West Bank- Known as Judea and Samaria in Israeli public parlance.

The EU leadership knows very well that the settlement issue has become the Palestinian’s new “sacred cow” despite its always having been an issue to be resolved in final status peace talks as determined, agreed, and signed at Oslo and witnessed by the EU, the UN and others. Some EU Leaders admitted that even Abbas had willingly kept quiet on the settlement issue in the past which had never hindered Palestinian consideration and rejection of statehood offers by Israel at Annapolis in 2008 and at Camp David in 2000.

However, since 2008 and the failure of Annapolis, the Palestinians have distorted the settlement issue and negated Israel’s agreed upon rights in order to block any possible progress in negotiations while knowing full well that at a minimum, no Israeli government since 1967 would freeze building in Israel’s capital city. Palestinians and EU diplomats note that President Obama’s initial support on the issue in 2009 helped lock the Palestinian’s into their current position.

To be clear, the current Israeli government’s position and that of past governments have been clear. Yitzhak Rabin himself, the grandfather of the Oslo peace process, told the Knesset in October 1995 when they affirmed the Oslo interim agreement that Jerusalem would remain the United Capital of Israel in any final arrangement with the Palestinians. Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon or Olmert did not halt housing starts anywhere in Jerusalem at any time during their administrations.

The United States’ position on settlements seems to have been recalibrated somewhat but the Palestinian position has hardened. This places greater pressure on European interlocutors to pressure Israel to make further concessions on settlements to try to lure the Palestinians to talk.

What can be done?

First, there is a window of opportunity for the Quartet and other interlocutors to act. The UN will likely not vote on the Palestinian petition for up to six months. The Palestinians refusal to return to the negotiating table may be tempered by their own increasing isolation as they notice determined US and EU efforts to advance a united front in common recognition of the many dangers presented by the unilateral Palestinian gambit. Turkish regional ascendancy and their support of the Palestinian bid against the backdrop of the instability of the Arab Spring- turned winter may continue to distort Palestinian thinking. However, European and US concerns over the same Middle East instability and implications for vital western interests in the region may well prevail and assist Israel in its readiness to reengage with the Palestinian Authority.

The World Jewish Congress and other bodies can be very helpful to this process by impressing on governments worldwide the importance of adopting a tough stance with the Palestinians in insisting they return to the negotiating table or risk losing the prospect of a Palestinian state living in mutual recognition, peace, and security next to Israel.

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