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Donald Macintyre: The Palestinian leader can't retreat now

International Studies

Donald Macintyre
Thursday 08 September 2011 00:00 BST

The little Caribbean island of Grenada has a population smaller than the central Israeli town of Rehovot. But during the visit to Israel by its foreign minister Karl Hood this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have all made time to see him. The reason isn't hard to find. Grenada has a vote on the UN General Assembly as good as China's or the United States' and it has yet to make up its mind on how to vote when President Mahmoud Abbas takes his case for recognising Palestinian statehood to New York later this month.

Israel could have treated the Palestinians' UN move more impassively. It might have taken the view that UN "recognition" – or, more precisely, giving the Palestinian Authority the status of a "non-member state" like the Vatican – would not change one jot of the "facts on the ground" in the occupied West Bank (which it won't), arguably reinforcing its contention that only a negotiated agreement can do that. It's true that there are real world dangers for Israel in such a UN resolution – including that it might allow the Palestinians to bring complaints, for example about warfare in Gaza, to the International Criminal Court. But since the Palestinians might themselves be exposed to such complaints, an alternative to outright opposition might have been to negotiate a way round that problem. Israel might have been quietly satisfied that the moderate West Bank leadership was reinforcing its commitment (with diplomacy not violence) to a two-state solution, which is not in principle shared by Hamas, by embodying it in UN membership. It might even have heeded the distant echo of the seminal General Assembly resolution in 1947 which foreshadowed establishment of the state of Israel.

But it hasn't. Instead it has embarked, with US support – easily forthcoming in the long run-up to a presidential election – on a fierce international lobbying campaign, not so much to ensure the Palestinian resolution is defeated, but to ensure that the maximum number of friendly countries vote against it. Parts of the Israeli political establishment have talked up their extensive preparations for the violence they say is likely to arise around the time of the UN deliberations. And ministers on the right of Mr Netanyhau's right-wing government have begun to consider plans to retaliate by withdrawing co-operation, which within all its limits, has served Israel, as well as the Palestinian Authority, reasonably well over the past three years.

Partly as a result of this, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, long overshadowed by the Arab Spring, is likely to return to centre stage in the coming weeks. In two ways. The first concerns the diplomatic dance within the Middle East Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia). Its envoy Tony Blair is now in Jerusalem, mandated by Washington to try to bring the two sides together for direct negotiations that would stop the Palestinians going to New York. But even if Blair were to confound expectations by somehow restarting negotiations, the best hope would be – possibly – to improve the atmosphere of the Palestinians' UN move rather than stop it altogether.

Which leaves the question of how the Europeans handle the pressure from Israel and the US to vote no to the Palestinians in New York, a matter of intense discussion within, as well as between, governments. To take just one example, Nick Clegg, given his stated views on the conflict, is likely at some point to press David Cameron to remain open to the Palestinians' initiative. At one point it looked as if Britain, France and Germany were united behind a formula which would have left the issue of bilateral recognition of "Palestine" by EU members to a future "right time". But now even that is in doubt, partly because of cold feet on the part of Germany, nervous for obvious historical reasons about upsetting Israel.

The other focus will be on whether real violence is on the way. It is always possible that the cycle of unarmed demonstrations spinning off into clashes which already happen on a weekly basis in some West Bank villages, could spread and intensify with unpredictable results.

But the key determinant for Palestinians is unlikely to be the appeal to the UN itself, or even the lack of tangible results that flow from it, about which few in the West Bank have any illusions. The real risk is growing disillusionment about the lack of progress after two years of internationally acclaimed state building. Not least among the very security forces, who have maintained calm over the past two years and now wonder when they are going to see the state of which they hoped and trained to be the security arm. That will only be exacerbated if the US Congress carries out its threat to cut off funds to the PA – and therefore salaries of its employees. It's hard to see how the US's supposedly pro-Israel legislators see that as being in Israel's interests.

Mr Abbas has not only been criticised by Israel. At the other end of the spectrum a vocal pro-Palestinian lobby has argued that Palestinian Authority UN membership will sacrifice the primacy of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and, as a result, the interests of the diaspora refugees. In fact, there is nothing to stop the UN recognising the historic role of the PLO, of which Mr Abbas is anyway chairman. Nor is it easy to see how this would affect actual negotiations on the position of refugees.

This is not going to be easy. But for the Palestinian president to back down now would be severely weakening for him, and for a Palestinian Authority, readier for statehood than it has ever been. Unless Blair somehow works a last minute miracle a retreat would not be in the interests of the Palestinians, or in the longer term of Israel itself.

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