x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Israel threatens 'repercussions' if Palestine statehood bid succeeds

Steep financial sanctions by Israelis against Palestinian Authority possible as right-wing foreign minister issues warning over UN request for statehood.

TEL AVIV // Israel threatened yesterday that there would be "tough repercussions" towards the Palestinian Authority if the United Nations approved the Palestinian quest for recognition of independent statehood.

The threat was made by Israel's far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as prospects for renewing peace talks on the creation of a Palestinian state appeared dim after the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday suggested he may reject a plan by the so-called Middle East Quartet for restarting negotiations.

The Quartet - the US, UN, European Union and Russia - announced a proposal on Friday for Israelis and Palestinians to meet within a month and set up a new agenda for peace talks in a bid to avoid a confrontation between the two sides in the aftermath of the Palestinian UN request. The Quartet had called for a deadline of the end of 2012 for reaching a peace deal.

The proposal came just hours after Mr Abbas officially declared the Palestinians' request for the UN Security Council to approve Palestine as a full UN member, a prospect fiercely opposed by Israel and likely to be vetoed by the US.

Today, the Security Council is expected to begin discussing the Palestinian application, according to the UN ambassador for Lebanon, which this month holds the body's rotating presidency.

The possibility that the Quartet's plan would be embraced by the Israelis and the Palestinians appeared minimal yesterday as top Israeli and Palestinian officials engaged in a war of words.

Mr Lieberman told an Israeli radio station that if the Palestinians are successful in either the UN Security Council or the General Assembly, "that would bring us to an altogether new situation and this would have repercussions, tough repercussions."

Mr Lieberman did not spell out what steps Israel may take, but they were likely to include financial ramifications. That is because Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli finance minister, threatened last week to stop transferring tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians and that account for about two thirds of the Palestinian Authority's revenues. Mr Steinitz has already temporarily curtailed the transfer of taxes in May.

Analysts say that any further such moves could cause the collapse of the West Bank-based Palestinian government because it would not be able to pay its employees - which account for about a fifth of the Palestinian workforce - or pay its private contractors.

Yesterday, Palestinian negotiators condemned Israel and Washington for opposing their bid, charging that the US was vetoing their application because Barack Obama, the US president, was looking for re-election support from American Jews. Muhammad Shtayyeh, an official in Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement, told the Voice of Palestine radio station that "Obama prefers to yield a lot to the Zionist lobby but he will lose a lot in the Arab region."

On Saturday, Mr Abbas was quoted as telling the pan-Arabic daily newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat that Mr Netanyahu's "ideological positions do not allow him to advance forward" and ranked him last when asked which Israeli leaders had been the easiest to work with in past negotiations.

For many Israeli and Palestinian commentators, the accusations between Israel and the Palestinians - as well as the UN speeches by Mr Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister - were aimed at bolstering their domestic support.

"As absurd as it may be, these two leaders, the Palestinian and the Israeli, travelled to New York to speak to Ramallah and Jerusalem," wrote Sima Kadmon of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Just like Netanyahu took care to maintain his political standing in Israel, [Abbas] sought to bolster his image on the Palestinian street and in Arab states and boost Fatah's position as compared to Hamas."

Ms Kadmon, a veteran commentator, added that there was one key conclusion from both speeches: "There will not be any peace - not in the coming years and there is doubt that it will even be in the coming generations."

Nevertheless, both Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu have not ruled out the Quartet's proposal.

Mr Abbas, who on Saturday expressed scepticism about the plan because it lacks key demands such as a halt to Israeli settlement expansion and using the borders before the 1967 war as a basis for negotiations, was expected to convene with his top ministers and advisers late yesterday to discuss the proposal.

Mr Netanyahu, who has initially welcomed the Quartet blueprint, is expected to hold a meeting with his top government ministers today, according to Israeli media.