x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

After UN bid, Palestinians plot their next play

Any gains the Palestinians made will remain cosmetic should Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, decide to be content with the spike in popularity his performance at the UN General Assembly caused at home.

WASHINGTON // After the sound and fury in New York last week when the Palestinian bid to become a full member of the United Nations held the world's attention, tawdry reality has returned with a vengeance on the ground.

Israel announced tenders for yet more settlement units in occupied territory. Palestinians protested that such actions render negotiations meaningless. The international community, led by the United States, insisted such negotiations remain the only path to peace.

The Palestinian application for full UN membership, meanwhile, has been passed into committee. There it may languish for weeks, depending on how Byzantine the UN's Security Council decides it wants to be.

Palestinian officials will spend those weeks trying to secure support for their bid from nine members of the Council - they say they have eight now - while Washington will throw around its diplomatic weight to ensure that it won't have to use a veto.

But a stalemate is threatening to still the diplomatic waves Palestinians caused in New York. Any gains the Palestinians made will remain cosmetic should Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, decide to be content with the spike in popularity his performance at the UN's General Assembly caused at home.

Now, it is about the follow-up and Palestinians have only a few options. The leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the PLO, is understood to be closely debating three.

One depends on the ability of the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia - to find an acceptable framework to bring the two sides back to direct talks.

Immediately after Mr Abbas finished addressing the General Assembly on September 23, the Quartet rushed out a statement calling for new negotiations to begin in a month, sustained support for Palestinian development efforts and, perhaps most importantly, negotiations to conclude no later than the end of 2012.

While this will have sounded vaguely promising to the PLO leadership, there is nothing new there. It was, after all, the assertion by Barack Obama, the US president, in 2010 that a Palestinian state could be created in a year that helped propel the Palestinian UN bid.

What Mr Abbas would have been looking for was a statement affirming that the baseline for territorial negotiations was the 1967 borders, and a commitment that Israeli settlement building would cease during talks.

He got neither. And perhaps more importantly, the PLO delegation in New York last week got no indication in their meetings with US officials that any such framework was in the offing.

Even if PLO leaders agreed to let the UN's Security Council hold their bid up in committee for a month or two, as has been suggested, it is extremely hard to see how, without such an explicit framework for negotiations, Mr Abbas can agree to go back to the table. After all, without a total settlement construction freeze, it would be a continuation of the same process that has failed to yield result in 18 years.

But Israel shows no sign of budging, while the US administration, in an election year, is highly unlikely to want to push the issue, as Palestinian officials are only too aware.

Even with no negotiations, and regardless of the result of the vote in the Security Council, the Palestinians can still turn to the General Assembly. There, an application for an upgrade to the current observer status of the PLO will win overwhelming support. It may open up certain limited legal avenues to Palestinians, including membership of the International Criminal Court.

Such a move will yet again affirm the international consensus behind Palestinian statehood. Any new legal avenues are unlikely to make much of difference, however. Israel does not accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, and has shown time and again that it is perfectly willing to ignore international censure.

Most recently, Israel refused to cooperate with the UN's investigation into allegations of war crimes during its Gaza offensive in 2008-2009, and subsequently, with the support of the US, dismissed the findings of the Goldstone Report out of hand.

The General Assembly, in other words, may offer Palestinians a small moral victory, but will do nothing alone to change the dynamics on the ground.

PLO leaders further say they are now seriously debating a third option: dismantling the PA. This is the most dramatic option on the table. The PA employs 150,000 people and such a move would bring very uncertain political results.

Nevertheless, it is a choice the PLO might have to make. As it is, the PA functions as a municipal authority ultimately acting under the suzerainty of the Israeli government. Eventually, that role will prove unsustainable. The PA will either dismantle itself or be dismantled.

For now, Palestinian leaders are trying to manage widespread discontent by urging non-violent popular demonstrations against the Israeli occupation. Somewhat disingenuously, however, Mr Abbas has vowed to contain such discontent to Palestinian city centres, tantamount to prisoners protesting against their treatment in jail by scowling angrily from their cells.

His greatest achievement at the UN may well be that he forced the Palestinian issue on to the front pages for a week, with a focus on statehood rather than violence or conflict. For any more substantial achievement it is what the PLO is or is not prepared to do next that will really signal whether a change is in the offering.