x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Palestinian fate rests on strong institutions

The Palestinian statehood effort at the United Nations promises advantages, but the gambit also carries risks. In any case, effective state institutions matter more than recognition right now.

The US and Israel are doing what they can to prevent a United Nations vote to acknowledge Palestinian statehood. This has encouraged many proponents of the plan, which has a good chance of partial success.

The initiative is evidence of how sophisticated Palestinian advocates have become. But the gambit is not without risks for the Palestinian Authority.

Perceived as a way to pressure the US to make Israel negotiate in good faith, the measure took on a life of its own after Washington's ability to cajole Israel broke on Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigent eagerness to keep stalling - and building settlements. In this sense it is Mr Netanyahu who has put at risk the primacy of an agreed two-state solution.

To be sure, formal Palestinian acceptance into the community of states is unlikely now; an already-promised US veto in the Security Council will ensure that.

Still, General Assembly approval, highly likely though not certain, would convey some benefits, principally political: symbolic validation of the cause and increased isolation for Israel and the US. But the change would also bring some legal advantages: by moving from "observer entity" to "non-member observer state" (like the Vatican) the PA would gain access to world bodies including the International Criminal Court.

To set against these gains there are risks to consider. One is the US threat to end its annual $400 million (Dh1.47 billion) subsidy to the PA. But since the same amount could be available to the PA from other donors the US may be slow to actually take this step.

Israel's threat to stop transferring tax revenue it collects on goods coming into the Palestinian territories is more worrisome. But that could well topple the Fatah leadership, the most moderate Israel can hope for. Already the administration of Salam Fayyed, the capable moderate PA prime minister, is slow to pay civil servants' salaries, due to the non-delivery of some promised foreign aid.

The third potential downside to pursuit of UN approval is that the bright new spotlight of "statehood" could expose the persistent disunity of the Palestinian leadership. In fact, Hamas is at best lukewarm to the whole UN recognition project.

If the politics of statehood are in question, so too are the mechanics. This week the World Bank had high praise for Mr Fayyed's just-concluded two-year project to strengthen state institutions. But the World Bank also said aid promised but not delivered, along with Israeli restrictions, could imperil those accomplishments. Recognition as a state is important, but actually building a working state must be the top priority.