x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

More negotiations ahead for Palestinian statehood bid

Palestinian officials say they want a vote as soon as possible on their statehood bid, but it is not clear they will be able to force the issue.

Palestinian Latifa Ahmed, center, holds a picture of her late son Issam Badran during his funeral in the West Bank village of Qusra Saturday. Badran was shot dead during a clash with Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Palestinian Latifa Ahmed, center, holds a picture of her late son Issam Badran during his funeral in the West Bank village of Qusra Saturday. Badran was shot dead during a clash with Israeli soldiers and settlers.

NEW YORK // As the dust settles at the United Nations headquarters, the only thing that seems clear is that much is still to be determined.

The Palestinian bid for statehood will now go through a process at the Security Council that can take anywhere from days to months. On Monday, members will meet to discuss the Palestinian application.

What appears certain is that, for now, most countries want to avoid a controversial and potentially divisive vote. So, they are inclined to give efforts to reconvene direct peace talks a chance.

Palestinian officials say they want a vote as soon as possible, but it is not clear they will be able to force the issue. And even if they did, the Palestinians do not, in spite of earlier claims to the contrary, have the support of the nine members of the 15-member council needed to force the US to cast a veto, which it is trying to avoid.

One option for the Palestinians is to go to the General Assembly to ask for support to become a non-state member, the second-best option that would at least give the Palestinians a confidence-boosting majority there.

In the meantime, efforts to restart negotiations will gather pace. The Quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, Russia, the EU and the UN - released a statement Friday that set a one-month deadline for a "preparatory meeting" between the parties to agree on an agenda for negotiations, and a six-month timeline for "substantial progress".

But neither the Quartet statement nor US officials in briefings to journalists have spelt out what would happen if the time frames are not met.

Moreover, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, told reporters yesterday on his way back to Ramallah from New York that, "we will not deal with any initiative" that does not address the issue of Israeli settlement construction in occupied territory or base a framework for territorial negotiations on 1967 borders.

The Quartet statement mentioned neither. And Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has dismissed the Palestinian position as a "precondition" and is urging the Palestinians to "stop negotiating about negotiating".

A resumption of negotiations thus looks very difficult at the moment, said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst.

"There is very little trust about the willingness and the desire of the Israelis and the Americans to make serious concessions. So the Palestinian position is going to try to be positive without being reckless."

Mr Kuttab said it all comes down to behind-the-scenes negotiations, where there "will be attempts to test the waters … to see what the other side has in terms to progress things".

But it will take a lot for Palestinians to be swayed, especially as faith in American mediation appears to have been lost, said Mark Perry, a Washington-based military and political analyst.

"The Palestinian bid at the UN signalled the collapse of the Oslo process and the collapse of American mediation," Mr Perry said. "The only problem is, who else but the US is there?"

Indeed, it is US diplomacy on the conflict, and perhaps in the Middle East generally, that has emerged the biggest loser in the past few days.

Mr Abbas achieved something spectacular: he focused the world's attention on Palestinian rights rather than West Bank or Gaza violence and managed to eclipse Israel's well-oiled public relations machine.

By the time Mr Netanyahu took to the podium at the UN's General Assembly on Friday, he looked and sounded defensive. He even started his speech by insulting the world leaders in his audience, calling them participants in a "theatre of the absurd".

But, in practice, both leaders just restated their positions, even if Mr Abbas did so to better effect. It is US mediation efforts that appears to have emerged damaged.

Mr Obama angered not only Palestinians with his speech on Wednesday - in which he announced that the US would veto the Palestinian statehood bid if the US had to - he also created the impression that the US had lost its way, praising people's aspirations for freedom and democracy in the countries of the Arab Spring, yet being willing to block Palestinian aspirations for independence.

"He completely caved in to the Israeli position," said Mr Perry. Washington, now, "is adrift. There is no Middle East policy".

okarmi@thenational.ae