x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Palestinians one-up Israeli PR machine

Since the suspension of direct negotiations, Palestinian diplomats seeking recognition for an independent state have earned unprecedented support and seen their missions elevated to near-official embassy status.

The former British prime minister and international mideast envoy Tony Blair, left, meets Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday.
The former British prime minister and international mideast envoy Tony Blair, left, meets Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday.
JERUSALEM // Israel's public relations machine has long been one of the country's most formidable weapons in the Middle East conflict, but Palestinians have managed to one-up the Israelis recently, earning some noteworthy diplomatic support for their statehood ambitions.
Ever since direct negotiations were suspended earlier this year, Palestinian diplomats have criss-crossed the world, visiting capitals in Europe and the Americas to gain support.
Now that politicking seems to be paying dividends. Several Latin American countries in the last month have either recognised an independent Palestinian state along Israel's 1967 borders or expressed their willingness to do so.
In Europe, Palestinian diplomatic missions are being upgraded to near-official embassy status. After Norway's recent decision to do so, the senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, announced on Sunday that as many as 10 European Union (EU) countries were preparing to follow suit.
At the same time, Israeli settlements have been condemned. More than two dozen former European heads of state and other figures agreed in late November to call for EU sanctions on Israel as punishment for its settlements. Also, Arab states and the Palestinians are planning to ask the UN Security Council to punish Israel for its stance on the settlements.
Although less vocal, US officials are thought to have also grown frustrated with Israel's refusal to budge on the settlements.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president, has insisted on a halt to settlement activity for the talks to continue.
Now, said Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, the perceived intransigence of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has had the unintended effect of boosting international sympathy for the Palestinians and further isolating Israel.
"Netanyahu has been the single best thing to help galvanise support for the Palestinians," he said.
"This is an unprecedented situation," he said, adding: "If I were Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], I would consider Netanyahu a present, one that I would use as much and as quickly as I could to gain traction with the United States, the UN, the international community."
Mr Netanyahu, and his cabinet have been put on the defensive. On Monday, the country's foreign ministry instructed every one of its envoys abroad to start "urgent" diplomatic efforts to counter the Palestinian moves.
Yet, what substantive benefits Mr Abbas can gain from the recent wins remains a question.
During an interview on Saturday with Israel's Channel 2 TV, Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister, even went so far as to say that the Palestinians were "not looking for a unilateral declaration of statehood".
That would seem to contradict all the recent diplomatic activity.
Yet the Palestinians, for the most part, acknowledge that the recognitions for their wished-for state would not, in fact, lead to its actual creation. This would be impossible without co-operation from Israel, which occupies the West Bank and governs East Jerusalem, the desired capital of a Palestinian state.
"This is not the first time the Palestinians have diplomatically outmaneuvered Israel, and this is why we have to be careful of sitting back and waiting for the international community to do what is the Palestinians' job," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University.
Palestinian leaders would also have to do their part in persuading Israel to take more conciliatory stances, he said. Mr Abbas appeared to be attempting this on Sunday, when, in a call for peace to the Israeli public, he dined with dozens of Israeli officials in Ramallah.
"Our best shot is to make a change at the level of Israeli public opinion," said Mr Abusada.
Still, efforts to garner international support may have indirect diplomatic benefits - particularly in getting Washington to press Israel for concessions. The idea, said Ghassan Khatib, a PA spokesperson, is that this would "convince the United States to convince Israel to move forward on the talks; and if other countries support Palestinian independence, this will encourage the United States".
And their recent success at courting support from Europe and Latin America could well succeed at pressuring the US, said Steven Cook, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a US research organisation.
"It strikes me that it would be difficult for the US to maintain a position principally opposed to the entire world," he said. But the Obama administration would oppose unilateral Palestinian actions, he said, describing their thinking as: "OK, you make a unilateral declaration of independence, and then what? There's no agreement on borders or anything, and you're back to this kind of provisional state thing, and then the Israelis are even less willing to negotiate".
 
hnaylor@thenational.ae
* With additional reporting by Omar Karmi in Washington