Lebanon Pulse

Abbas UN move brings legality to talks with Israel

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Article Summary
The Palestinian effort to join UN bodies is a step forward in restoring balance to the current negotiations.

The step that Mahmoud Abbas took April 1 for Palestine's accession to 15 UN bodies — important, however timid — was necessary to bring forward a legal basis for achieving consequential results in the ongoing engagement with Israel. This step, in addition to being necessary, needs to be complemented by activating the resolution of the UN General Assembly that clearly and unequivocally recognizes Palestine as a “non-member observer state” at the United Nations.

Such recognition affirms a Palestinian state, and because it is clearly occupied, also defines the legally binding basis from which further negotiations should proceed. Of course, recognition entails access to agencies, but it now behooves the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to activate this particular resolution and negotiate on the basis that Palestine is indeed an occupied state. This of course will be opposed by Israel, give that since June 1967 it has denied this legal reality and thus has never acknowledged its status as an occupying power.

The Palestinians have fallen into a trap created by a belief in the statement by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that the United States holds “99% of the cards” in the Middle East. This led to a process culminating in the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements and leading Palestinians to think that exclusive US management of the peace process would probably expedite the achievement of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It is clear, however, that this unilateral management was flawed, non-consequential and unable to achieve the sought-after objective of a two-state solution as a reasonable and just resolution to this conflict.

The step taken by Abbas is a partial corrective to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. It must, however, be followed by establishing a government for the observer state to feasibly render consequential negotiations, instead of the futile talks that have followed the 1993 Oslo Accords. The governing authority needs to cover Palestine as a whole — Gaza, East Jerusalem and West Bank. reconciliation between the authorities in the West Bank and Gaza would re-establish the credibility of unified representation of the Palestinian people and the legitimacy of the government that follows.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, unprecedented in their repetitiveness, have undoubtedly been sincere, but flawed. He could not, as his predecessors could not, secure an acknowledgment by Israel that it is an occupying power on Palestinian land. That is why creeping settlements continued at an accelerated pace. Seven hundred new housing projects were authorized in the last two days that would render any possible Palestinian capital in occupied East Jerusalem minimal and hardly a village.

Of course, the United States has wanted for a long time since Oslo to bring about a resolution to this endemic conflict. While the executive branch might have been more forthcoming, the reality is that the Congress has, to a large extent, a well-known quasi-veto on any attempt to persuade upon Israel anything that its government does not prefer, particularly the current one.

When the last batch of 104 Palestinian prisoners were not released on March 29 because of new conditions dictated to the Palestinian negotiating team by Israel, there remained no other option but to apply to the UN agencies as a starting point to restore a balance to the negotiating framework, unlike what has been taking place since Kerry returned to the flawed peace process and his suggested “framework.”

The “moderate” Abbas was finally exasperated by Israel repeatedly insisting on new conditions, such as recognizing it as the “Jewish state” or “a state for the Jews,” thus elevating the Jewish Law of Return and terminating any notion of the Palestinian refugees' right to return. Abbas’ decision to join the UN specialized agencies was in response to Israel dealing with the Palestinian issue as a conqueror, not as an occupier.

Sadly, what we are witnessing and experiencing is a situation in which the United States, eager to resume “negotiations,” has been entertaining options that create erroneous and misplaced ideas with the hope of enticing Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to ease its hard-line stance and his propensity to dictate terms that render impossible any just, peaceful and credible outcome for a two-state solution.

Perhaps it is time that the United States undertook what the late Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas called “a profound reassessment of US policy on the Palestinian question.” The Barack Obama administration could start such an assessment with an attempt to extract from Israel recognition that it is an occupying power bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention. I realize that this might be difficult, especially politically, but if this issue were resolved, it would constitute a positive contribution to this long-standing conflict.

To illustrate how difficult it would be for a reassessment to become a reality, it suffices to quote Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN and in the past a liberal human rights activists. On April 2, according to Haaretz, Power told a House of Representatives panel in Washington that “the US will oppose any attempt to upgrade the status of Palestinians everywhere in the UN.” She also noted that a “newly formed American-Israeli team meets monthly to discuss and coordinate responses to possible unilateral actions by the Palestinians at the UN.” Power contended, “If the Palestinians go to the ICC [International Criminal Court] it will be a profound threat to Israel and devastating to the peace process.” Power's statement is clear proof that on the Arab and particularly Palestinian issue, politics preempts policies.

Let us hope that a US reassessment becomes feasible given that the Palestinians have taken an emboldened first step toward seeking a peace that is just and durable. This is a realizable hope and not wishful thinking.

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Found in: united states, united nations, prisoners, palestine, mahmoud abbas, israeli occupation, israel

Clovis Maksoud is a former ambassador and permanent observer of the League of Arab States at the United Nations and its chief representative in the United States for more than 10 years.

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