Last year the Palestinians failed when they sought to upgrade their status in the UN Security Council; now the Palestinian Authority is appealing to the UN General Assembly, where it is assured of the majority support. The move has a primarily ritual significance and is basically a PR stratagem; nevertheless, the [Israeli] Foreign Ministry has already convened an emergency meeting of Israel’s ambassadors to European Union countries. As matters now stand, the declarations by senior officials in Germany and Britain leave room for optimism in Jerusalem
A cool damp sea-breeze was blowing in. Inside, in the dinner hall, France's Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights François Zimeray was dining with a group of activists. On the terrace, Prof. Dina Porat was waiting. French aesthetics is well known universally and the magnificent villa of the French ambassador to Israel is a living proof of it. A spacious foyer, high ceilings and a grand patio overlooking the Mediterranean. An island of good taste at the heart of dilapidated Jaffa.
The landlord, France's Ambassador to Israel Christophe Bigot, has returned just a few hours earlier from his homeland, after reviewing [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successful visit [to France] last week [Oct. 31-Nov. 1]. “It was a most impressive visit,” Bigot says. “It was an opportunity to establish a personal relationship, friendship and mutual trust between [French President] François Hollande and Netanyahu. They spent long hours together, both in Paris and in Toulouse. It was a historic visit.”
“Is there at present mutual confidence between Hollande and Netanyahu?” I ask him. “Yes,” Bigot confirms, “There is a good level of friendship and mutual confidence between the two leaders.” This answer by Bigot is of special importance, considering the attitude displayed by former French President Sarkozy, who branded Netanyahu “a liar.” A new page has been turned in the relations between Israel and France.
Bigot has been serving in Israel for over three years now, accompanying us through good times and bad times, sharing our sorrows and joys. Always he was there with us. At the time, Bigot was involved in the efforts to obtain information about [abducted IDF soldier] Gilad Shalit, who has French citizenship, as you may recall. He frequently visited [Gilad’s parents] Noam and Aviva Shalit while Gilad was still in captivity and acted as a go-between between them and the Élysée Palace. Later on, upon the release of Gilad Shalit, on the day of elation and jubilation [Oct. 18, 2011], Bigot was among the very few who met him when he returned home. About half a year ago [March 19], he was shocked to hear, along with all of France, of the terror attack [on a Jewish school] in Toulouse [where four were shot to death].
He was supposed to finish his term in office these days and return home. However, being a respected and esteemed diplomat, he was asked by his superiors in the French foreign service to stay in office one more year. His extended tenure is welcomed by Israel. Bigot is the ambassador of France in Israel and the ambassador for the Iranian issue in France. He deserves much of the credit for the tough line adopted by the Élysée with respect to the Ayatollahs’ nuclear program. It isn’t by chance that his deputy, Nicolas Roche, was appointed as an adviser [or, more precisely, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Nonproliferation] to the French Secretary of Defense.
In the course of his diplomatic service here [in Israel], the ambassador has learned to avoid slips of the tongue, in particular when talking with the press. The concept “off the record” is out of bounds as far as he is concerned, and justifiably so; after all, why get mixed up? Still, at one particular moment in our tête-à-tête, the diplomatic restraint gave way to a storm of emotions, contrary to all rules of diplomatic discretion. It was when Bigot described the memorial service for the Toulouse victims, held last week [Nov. 1] in the presence of Hollande and Netanyahu.
“Yaacov Monsonego, the principal of the [Jewish] school [attacked], whose eight-year-old daughter Miriam was shot to death right in front of him, addressed the memorial,” Bigot said, his voice choking. “Just imagine, how much inner strength and courage are required of him to go day after day through that gate near which his daughter was slain. It’s unbelievable, the courage he has to muster to do it. He stayed on in Toulouse. He stayed there, at the same school, and he has been carrying on his work’’.
“The school that was targeted in the terror attack is in fact a holy place. Those innocent, pure victims were murdered by a loathsome villain. Prime Minister Netanyahu was right when he said that this terror was threatening us all; after all, that Mohamed Merah who murdered Jews because they were Jews, had killed three French soldiers too, just because France is fighting the terror originating in Afghanistan,” the French Ambassador says.
Good morning Israel
One cannot doubt Bigot’s sincere sense of empathy with and sympathy for Israel. However, empathy is not buying you anything and with sympathy you cannot win diplomatic campaigns. A campaign of this sort is looming ahead for the Israeli political and diplomatic establishment in the coming weeks. Bigot wouldn’t say how France is going to vote if and when the Palestinian bid is put to the vote at the UN General Assembly. “In diplomacy, you have to see the text and the context. So far, we have not seen any text. As to the context, we will have to debate it with the US Administration and with our colleagues in the European Union. As a rule, we believe that the Israelis and Palestinians should go back to the negotiating table. It’s the only way to move ahead.”
The text under discussion is the Palestinian appeal to the UN General Assembly to upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation from that of an observer to that of a “non-member state.” A year after the Palestinian Authority’s way to the UN Security Council was blocked, when it failed in its bid to join the UN as a full member state, the Authority is now pursuing an alternative path, through the UN General Assembly. The good news is that the path chosen by the Palestinian Authority is not going to turn it into a full-fledged member, but rather put it on a par with the Vatican, which is a sort of a semi-state.
On the other hand, Israel has no way of blocking the Palestinians in case they decide to go ahead and push their bid through the UN General Assembly. All that the Palestinians have to do to secure the status of a “non-member state” is to enlist the support of the automatic majority they are assured of in the UN General Assembly. Mahmoud Abbas is certain to draw enthusiastic applause from most of the world’s countries.
In Israel, they are closely watching the Palestinian initiative. Until a few days ago, Israeli leaders and officials chose to keep a low profile, with the hope that “if we don’t show the Palestinians that we are upset, they may climb down the tree.” However, this week [of Nov. 4], when it became clear that the Palestinians were resolute in their decision to appeal to the UN General Assembly, the Israeli establishment woke to action. Netanyahu convened the forum of nine ministers to discuss the issue. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz proposed, once again, to halt the transfer of funds to the Abbas-Fayyad administration. Foreign Minister Liberman came up with the threat of toppling the Palestinian Authority and called for an emergency meeting of the 27 Israeli ambassadors to the European Union in Vienna today [Nov. 9]. The Israeli envoys were to hear from Liberman and his ministry’s senior officials how they should present the Israeli position on the issue to their counterparts in the European and Western capitals in an attempt to win them over.
Since anyway the Palestinians are assured of the majority support in the UN plenum, it isn’t a quantitative but rather a qualitative question. The Palestinians seek the political and moral seal of approval of Europe and the West. Israel, for its part, would be pleased if the countries it deems part of the “moral majority” don’t raise their hand in support of the Palestinian bid. The battle is thus over the group of “like-minded countries” as they are dubbed — Germany, Britain, France, Italy and other countries.
At the moment, the European countries are keeping their cards close to their chest, although they seem to favor the Israeli stance. Germany, like France, would rather not say how it is going to vote and adheres to its view that the two sides should resume their negotiations. A German official told me that “We [Germany ] maintain that the two-state solution can be reached only through negotiations. The two sides are thus urged to take the necessary steps to resume the [peace] talks. As to the vote in the UN, we will decide on our position when the time comes and the issue becomes relevant.” At the same time, the German official added, delivering a clear message to the Palestinians, that “our position will be determined among other things by the questions: What are the likely consequences of such a move? Would it be even more difficult to return to the negotiating table afterwards? Is the two-state vision jeopardized by the move and would it amplify the risk of further escalation in the situation?”
The German statement was made in reference to Foreign Minister Liberman’s threat in his talk with Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, namely, that if the Palestinians went to the UN, Israel would respond by suspending the political process and may even act against the Palestinian Authority itself. While his views do not necessarily represent nor commit the Israeli government in any way whatsoever, the Europeans have already learned that they better take Liberman seriously.
Even more pleasant to the Israeli ear are the statements made by London. Behind the scenes, British representatives exert heavy pressure on the Palestinian Authority chairman to retract the move. Onstage, British Prime Minister David Cameron explicitly and consistently makes pro-Israeli statements. Addressing the United Jewish Israel Appeal recently [Oct. 15], Cameron voiced views not that far from those of Foreign Minister Liberman regarding Mahmoud Abbas’ shaky position, even though using a more delicate language.
“We cannot in the same breath advocate democracy and provide excuses of stability in justification of the Palestinians’ failure to revive their own democracy. It’s seven years now since the Palestinians elected their president and six years since they held parliamentary election. The Palestinian leadership needs to refresh its mandate and show that it has the consent of its people. And it needs to resolve the situation in Gaza and restore a unified Palestinian leadership able to deliver peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel. Palestinian reconciliation and Palestinian election are thus key points on the way to peace. In the absence of the Palestinian people’s consent there can never be credible negotiations."
As to the Palestinian UN bid, Cameron unequivocally stated: “Let me tell President Abbas something very clearly: There is no path to statehood except through talks with Israel. So if the Palestinian leadership plans to make headway and gain ground through the UN rather than by negotiating with Israel, Britain will never support it. And let me say another thing: Britain will never support anyone who sponsors a football tournament named after a suicide bomber who killed 20 Israelis in a restaurant. We will not tolerate incitement to terrorism.” Concluding his address, Cameron called on Israel to halt construction in the settlements.
Based on the spirit of the statements cited above, it may be assessed that at least some of the Western states are not going to vote in support of the Palestinians, to Israel’s satisfaction. Furthermore, it should be noted that the UN General Assembly resolutions are declaratory in nature and are not taken too seriously in the diplomatic community. Therefore, even if the Palestinian move succeeds, the Palestinian delegation to the UN will still be sitting in the General Assembly Hall by the same table of non-member observer states where it is currently seated rather than among the member states. At the same time, although the resolution sought by the Palestinian Authority has a primarily ritual significance and is basically a PR stratagem more than a real political move, Israel is liable to find itself in a spot in case the resolution is passed.
In recent weeks, numerous deliberations were held in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and National Security Council with the aim of locating potential failure points. The conclusion reached was no different from that of last year’s debates, that is, the major challenge Israel is likely to face lies in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The Palestinians, who accuse Israel of perpetrating war crimes, have been barred so far from filing a lawsuit with the court as they are not considered a state. If they succeed in pushing their current bid for upgraded UN status through the UN General Assembly, the way will be opened before them to take legal action against Israel. And although Jerusalem, like Washington, is not an ICC member, the court has a mandate to prosecute civilians throughout the world in absentia. A legal battle of this kind, once launched, may prove problematic for quite a number of Israelis, regardless of its potential outcome.
What’s more, the consequences of the move may encourage the Palestinians to join other international organizations such as UNESCO or even the ICC. Thus, for instance, the Palestinian Authority may violate its agreement with Israel on radio frequencies sharing and appeal directly to the international Telecommunications Union (ITU). In that case, the dispute is liable to evolve into an electromagnetic chaos that would disrupt the entire frequency sharing system prevailing today in Israel.
To forestall such extreme scenarios and to prevent the Palestinians from acting as they deem fit, Israel may consider employing leverages vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority leaders. The address [for any such action] is the United States. Under a law passed by the US Congress at the time, any international agency that accepts the Palestinian Authority as a member would automatically lose the aid funds it receives from the United States, which generally account for the best part of the organization’s budget. That’s why up till now the Palestinians have refrained from appealing to any such international organizations, although they could have done so.
So the United States will do its part of the deal, but the question is what will Israel do. It’s to answer this question that Netanyahu convened this [last] week [Nov. 6] the forum of nine ministers. Israel can apply a wide range of punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority, from revocation of the VIP certificates of its leaders all the way to halting the transfer of tax monies to the Palestinian Authority, which would bring about its collapse. In the past years Netanyahu shunned any confrontation with the Palestinian Authority. Now with the parliamentary election in Israel just around the corner and with Barack Obama back at the Oval Office, his legs on his elegant desk, Netanyahu can be counted on not to set off any confrontation of the sort.