Israel's diplomatic drive to block Palestinian UN bid

Catrina Stewart
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:47

Israel’s foreign ministry has launched a global diplomatic offensive to foil a Palestinian move to seek recognition of statehood at the United Nations in September.

In classified cables leaked to an Israeli newspaper, officials call on envoys to warn the world that the Palestinian initiative will harm Israel’s legitimacy and wreck any hope of reviving peace negotiations.

Overseas missions have been tasked with lobbying senior politicians in their respective countries, mobilising Jewish organisations to influence public opinion, and placing articles and opinion pieces slamming the Palestinian move in the international media.

The foreign ministry move reflects Israel’s deep unease that the Palestinian bid will isolate it internationally and put it under increased pressure to withdraw from the West Bank and end its blockade of Gaza. Israeli officials argue that only a negotiated solution can bring peace.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is insisting on seeking statehood based on 1967 borders following the collapse of US-sponsored peace talks last September over the expansion of Jewish settlements, arguing that there is no alternative.

The move will be largely symbolic, as the UN Security Council must first approve any membership bid, and the Americans, who have a veto, have made it clear they will oppose it. But it is widely expected that the Palestinians would receive gain recognition of sorts from a majority in the UN General Assembly. While not binding on Israel, it would nevertheless be an embarrassment.

The Israeli ministry, which has barred its employees from taking time off in September, instructed the diplomatic missions to report weekly on their efforts to persuade governments to abstain or vote against a Palestinian state.

“The goal we have set is to have the maximum number of countries oppose the process of having the UN recognise a Palestinian state,” Rafael Barak, the ministry’s director general, wrote in the internal memo obtained by the Haaretz newspaper. “The Palestinian effort must be referred to as a process that erodes the legitimacy of the State of Israel.”

Efforts are likely to focus partly on Eastern European countries, who voted for Palestinian statehood in 1988 but have not yet signalled their position this time around. But Israel will also seek to sway France and Britain, both of which hinted they could support the Palestinians if they see no effort by Israel to resume negotiations.

Palestinian resolve to seek UN recognition appeared to harden after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to US Congress last month in which he rejected all of the key Palestinian demands to rapturous applause.

Frustrated that two decades of negotiations have failed to achieve a state, some argue the UN vote is the natural conclusion of a two-year drive for statehood spearheaded by Salaam Fayyad, the Western-educated prime minister.

“It’s an internationally-sponsored process. If we reach that goalpost, can you believe that the international community will not deliver?” said Husam Zomlot, an official with the Palestinian Fatah party. “If they don’t deliver, it will be extra hard for Palestinians to argue for multilateralism in the future.”

Privately, some Palestinian officials, including Mr Abbas, are said to be questioning the wisdom of the UN move, fearing that dashed expectations could trigger a Third Intifada, or popular uprising, while also harming the relationship with the Obama administration. “We are trapped with September,” one official told the Associated Press. “We don't know what to do after that.”

But Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitter Lemons, an Internet forum on Mideast issues, suggests that the Palestinians have little choice but to press on, but blames Israel for missing an opportunity.

“Israel is going about it all wrong,” he said. “The smart thing would be to embrace the Palestinian initiative and leverage it into a resolution that offers Israel a number of advantages as well.”

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