x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US settlement veto exposes PA's weaknesses, analysts say

Mahmoud Abbas responds with conciliatory tone to diplomatic snub after Barack Obama vetoes Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements.

JERUSALEM // As Palestinian leaders gingerly respond to a diplomatic blow delivered to them by Washington on Friday, analysts say the US veto of a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements has highlighted their diplomatic and political weakness.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president, seemed to go out of his way to express his commitment to the US a day after it vetoed a draft resolution in the UN Security Council that would have condemned Israel's settlements as "illegal".

Not only did the move appear to contradict previous statements made by the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, which criticised Israel's expanding and internationally shunned settlement enterprise. It was the first veto used by Washington at the world body since Mr Obama took office, as well as the only one wielded during Friday's vote; the other 14 members of the often bitterly divided Council agreed to rule in favour.

The measure was months in the making and represented a new strategy by Palestinian leaders to seek international legitimacy for their statehood ambitions beyond the framework of US-sponsored talks with Israel. They walked away from the most recent round of negotiations in September after Israel refused to extend a partial moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank.

Yet, in a statement posted on the website of the Palestinian news agency Wafa on Saturday, Mr Abbas responded with a conciliatory tone to the diplomatic snub. "We do not seek to boycott the American administration and it is not in our interest to boycott anyone," he said.

Later, Reuters reported, he also reaffirmed to George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, his commitment to the peace process.

Some see the cool-headed response as more a commitment to receiving financial and security largess from a global superpower than a belief that a lasting Israel-Palestinian peace can be forged through more talks.

Last year, for example, the United States gave nearly a quarter billion dollars to the PA, and its increasingly proficient security forces draw heavily on US funding and training.

Musa al Budeiri, a professor of political science at the West Bank's Birzeit University, described this reliance as a conundrum for the Palestinian leadership. While the US is providing important material benefits for the PA, he questioned how its leaders would ever earn significant diplomatic leverage from Washington given its enduring ties with Israel.

"I'm going to be 65 in June, and I have no memory of the US vetoing resolutions that did not favour Israel," he said.

The Palestinians would need to find a more impartial broker to resolve their conflict with Israel, he said. But Mr al Budeiri was at a loss for alternatives. "Where else can the PA turn to?" he said. "Who can it [the PA] call on? It can call on all sorts of people with no influence and power, but why would they do that?"

Part of the problem has to do with the perceived legitimacy of Mr Abbas. He and officials in the PA are widely regarded as unpopular, propped up by foreign powers, chief among them the US, and prone to corruption.

In response to the regional unrest that ousted governments in Tunisia and Egypt, they have responded with a number of decisions apparently aimed to allay such concerns.

This month, the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation announced long-awaited presidential and legislative elections to be held by September.

Then the PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who was appointed by Mr Abbas, announced last week his intention to reshuffle the cabinet. Yesterday, he even proffered forming a unity government with Hamas, a regional antagonist of Washington's and longtime enemy of Mr Abbas's that drove out his ruling faction, Fatah, from Gaza in 2007.

But in the face of revolutionary fervour continuing to sweep through the region, some say Mr Abbas and his colleagues must take bolder measures if they want to remain in the job. That may require an even more defiant tone with Washington and its insistence that the Palestinians return to the negotiating table with Israel.

Hani al Masri, a Palestinian analyst and journalist, said: "If Abu Mazen continues on the same policies, he will be in a bad situation: his authority will collapse and his credibility too."

He said the US veto had dashed hopes among Palestinians for achieving an independent state, "because if the US doesn't support the Palestinian on settlements, then how will it support the Palestinians when it comes to building their own state?"

But the PA, Mr Masri said, might have to go even further and consider a nonviolent intifada.

"In Egypt, they didn't wait for the green light from the United States," he said. "We can move without the permission from the United State. And in the end, they'll have to support us because they can't lose the support of the Palestinians and with them, the Arabs."

hnaylor@thenational.ae