x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Abbas's freeze at the UN gives peace a chance

Mahmoud Abbas has helped the Palestinian cause with his calculated pause in the campaign of asking more UN agencies to welcome the Palestinian Authority.

Despite his reservations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has suspended, for eight to 12 weeks, all efforts to win standing at United Nations agencies. This far-sighted measure will shine a spotlight on Israel's true intentions; almost any imaginable result will help the Palestinian cause.

The decision will be discussed when John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visits the region again starting this weekend, pursuing his goal of getting moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed. Prospects of this outcome dimmed somewhat after Israel's killing of two Palestinian teenagers this week; yesterday Mr Abbas accused Israel of trying to "provoke chaos" in the West Bank.

Mr Kerry will look to calm these new tensions. He is to visit Turkey, Jordan, and then Israel; in Jerusalem he will meet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he'll sit down with Mr Abbas in Ramallah.

Everyone involved understands that the Palestinians' best weapon in the push for statehood is international goodwill, which is increasing steadily as Israel persists in its purposeful, systematic extension of settlements on Palestinian land.

This rising tide of global public opinion has consequences: last November the UN General Assembly upgraded the Palestinian Authority from "non-member observer entity" to "non-member observer state" by a convincing vote of 138-9, with 41 abstentions. The previous month Palestine became a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, by a vote of 107-14, with 52 abstentions.

True, the US has used its Security Council veto to block full recognition of the PA at the UN. But this too lays bare increasing US-Israeli isolation on the issue. To keep the pressure on, the PA promptly applied to join the Universal Postal Union, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the UN Environment Programme and the World Health Organization. All of these applications now go on hold. So, most importantly, does the PA bid to sign the Rome Statute, and thus obtain standing before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. With that standing, Palestinians could make legal claims against senior Israeli officials, adding a whole new level of pressure on Israel.

Considering the obvious benefits of this international-institutions approach, suspending it for eight weeks, and possibly 12, is a real but calculated concession - and therein lies its value.

If Israel responds by slowing settlement construction or otherwise shows an appetite for talks, the Palestinians will have made progress. But if Israel lets this opportunity pass, then its real intentions will become more obvious to all.

The deadline is a sensible one. Eight weeks, with a possible four-week extension, should be enough time for clear signals to be sent back and forth, but the period is not overly long in the context of decades of history.