President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority face one of the most pressure packed days on Thursday when their diplomats are expected to send in a draft statement to the United Nations General Assembly for enhanced status in the world body.
The draft resolution, which was introduced to the United Nations earlier this month and announced (PDF) in front of the General Assembly in September, calls for the international community to recognize an independent Palestinian state on lands that have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war — East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But perhaps the most important aspect of the draft is the possibility of great power for the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations, including participation in the International Criminal Court.
After months of back-channel talks by the United States and an overt Israeli campaign to pressure the European member states to vote against or abstain from the measure, Israel has come to the realization that the Palestinians will succeed in their effort. Israeli diplomats and spokesmen for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are now downplaying the impact of the vote, calling it a symbolic gesture that will do nothing to improve the chances of a two-state solution.
In a drastic shift from its previous statements, Israel has also suggested that a vote for higher Palestinian representation in the United Nations will not result in extreme punishment for the Palestinian Authority.
This is a new development, considering the fact that Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman once threatened to collapse the Palestinian Authority if Abbas moved forward with the measure. With a number of powerful Western European nations supporting the Palestinian bid for nonmember observer status, Israel has likely concluded that strong countermeasures after the vote would would hurt its image among other United Nations members and cause tremendous frustration in European capitals.
In many respects, what comes after the vote will affect the future of the peace process far more than the vote itself. The result of the Palestinian effort is a forgone conclusion and it has been for months: there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and the body is filled with postcolonial states that are traditionally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The question rather is whether the Israelis and Palestinians will act in a responsible manner after the resolution has passed.
If Mahmoud Abbas decides to sue Israel for war crimes in the international court, the prospects of Israel retaliating in an equally strong way increases exponentially. Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be further away then ever and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank would continue at a faster pace. The interests of the international community, with the Europeans and the United States in the lead, would be best met by drilling a simple message into Abbas’ head: try to prosecute Israel would do far more damage to the peaceful process than any symbolic benefit he can derive from it.
Abbas has said that he would be willing to direct peace negotiations with the Israelis immediately after the General Assembly votes. The United Nations, the United States and Palestinians’ allies in the Arab world all need to make sure that he keeps that promise.