x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Palestinians eye diplomatic victory

There are fears that an improved status for the Palestinian Authority could lead to charges being laid against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Palestinian activists protest in Ramallah against Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s statement urging them to drop their bid for upgraded UN status.
Palestinian activists protest in Ramallah against Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s statement urging them to drop their bid for upgraded UN status.

TEL AVIV // Israel scrambled yesterday to soften the blow it may suffer from the Palestinian Authority bid to earn approval today at the United Nations for a status upgrade, a move which, if successful, will hand the Palestinians a major diplomatic victory.

Despite Israeli attempts to convince European allies to reject the Palestinian request or abstain during the vote at the 193-member UN General Assembly in New York, Switzerland and Denmark yesterday became the latest European countries to back the Palestinians. Israel expects that at least 150 UN members will approve the upgrade.

Despite a frenzy of talks this week between Israeli diplomats and their counterparts abroad on the Palestinian bid, Israeli officials - some of whom just weeks ago publicly threatened to take punitive measures such as prompting the collapse of the Palestinian Authority - have kept a low profile on the issue.

According to analysts, the US, Israel's staunchest ally, is likely to have persuaded Israel that the bid could be an essential public-relations win for Mahmoud Abbas, the western-backed Palestinian Authority president, whose popularity at home may have declined following Israel's eight-day onslaught against Hamas.

Mr Abbas heads the Palestine Liberation Organisation - the main Israeli partner for peace talks in the past two decades - as well as the secular Fatah party. It rivals Hamas, the Islamic group that rules Gaza and has claimed achievements in its armed struggle against Israel during the Israeli Gaza operation.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said: "Hamas's perception of victory in this war has damaged the status of the PLO in the West Bank. After the war in Gaza, the US has itself decided to not make a big fuss of the UN move and to let Abbas have demonstrable achievement which he can use to fix the damage to his personal prestige."

Some experts also said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has resolved to keep Israel's best diplomatic ammunition to build support against Iran's nuclear ambitions - viewed by Israel as an existential threat - rather than on the Palestinian UN upgrade.

Israel has for months opposed the promotion of the Palestinians to an "observer state" at the UN, fearing the move would undermine its hand in negotiations and also prompt the Palestinian leadership to take legal action against Israeli government and army officials at the International Criminal Court. The court prosecutes people for genocide, war crimes and other human-rights violations.

Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry in Jerusalem, said yesterday: "There are diplomatic efforts taking place today behind the scenes with several countries." Mr Palmor declined to give details on those talks but added that Israel was considering taking steps against the Palestinian Authority following the vote.

"If they choose to use this as a platform for further confrontation in the international arena, then there will obviously be a firm response," he said. He also said that Israel is weighing up a punitive measure, reported by Israeli media yesterday, to keep the tax funds that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority for the next few months as a way of paying off Palestinian debts for electricity and other services provided by Israel.

Those taxes on goods imported into the Palestinian territories amount to about US$100 million (Dh367m) every month and are a key lifeline for the Palestinian Authority, which is facing its deepest financial troubles ever.

Some pro-Israel advocates said the move would not only serve as a blow to Palestinians but also to efforts to reignite the two-year-long deadlock in negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state.

Amos Yadlin, a former top Israeli military commander, and Gilead Sher, formerly a senior peace negotiator for the Israeli government, said in a joint statement that the UN upgrade could result in considerable Palestinian unilateral moves towards statehood that could draw an aggressive Israeli response.

Such moves, according to their joint paper that was publicised by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, include creating a Palestinian army, declaring east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital or taking legal steps abroad against Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

They argued that Israel's military approach - and image abroad - could be hurt by the threat of the Palestinians possibly taking action against the country's army operations in the international court.

They said the possibility of the Palestinians turning to the International Criminal Court "is an even harsher limitation for Israel because any person or organisation - and not just official Palestinian representatives - could initiate a legal criminal procedure against Israel. That will be another layer in the de-legitimation campaign against Israel."