The Palestinian Authority's bid for UN recognition as a non-member observer state could lead to a new intifada or the PA's collapse, Israeli diplomats are warning countries worldwide as part of an intensive diplomatic campaign against the move.
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The risk is exacerbated, Foreign Ministry officials say, by the timing: The PA is expected to seek a vote in the UN General Assembly next month, at which point Israel's election campaign will be in full swing, with several parties holding primaries in late November. This is liable to lead ministers and Knesset members to vie with each other over who can offer a tougher response.
Thus even delaying the vote by a few months, until after the Israeli elections, would help prevent a disaster, ministry officials say.
"Even today, the atmosphere in the Prime Minister's Bureau is one of 'this time, we'll show them what's what,'" said a former senior official who was involved in discussions on the matter between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides. "Likud ministers will pressure him, the polls will scare him. And from there it's not far to a response that would bring about a violent conflagration or the collapse of the Palestinian Authority."
Senior Foreign Ministry officials and Israeli diplomats abroad have been warning of a scenario in which Israel's government "goes crazy" the day after the UN vote. And far from being insulted, politicians are encouraging this campaign.
"We suggest that the European Union take Israel's political needs into account," said a document ministry staffers prepared for Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon before his meeting this week with EU envoy Andreas Reinicke. "Israel is entering a campaign season, and consideration must be given to the fact that its government, too, is liable to find itself under political pressure to respond suitably to unilateral Palestinian moves."
A similar briefing paper was prepared for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman before his meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday, and ambassadors worldwide have been asked to give their host governments similar messages.
A senior government official said both Netanyahu and Lieberman warned Ashton that the PA's UN bid would be a "game-changing move" that would spark unilateral Israeli measures in response. "We're asking all these states to make the dangerous ramifications of this move clear to the Palestinians," he added.
Lieberman also told Ashton that the Foreign Ministry has prepared a "toolbox" of possible responses, ranging from relatively mild steps - like revoking PA officials' VIP passes or canceling work permits for Palestinians in Israel - to severe measures like approving construction of thousands of new houses in the settlements or halting tax transfers to the PA. The latter could result in the PA's financial collapse.
Israel could even declare Abbas "irrelevant," meaning it would sever all dealings with him, just as it did with his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
"We're telling the Europeans openly that if Abu Mazen [Abbas] goes to the UN, he won't be a partner in the eyes of Israel's leadership the day after," the senior official said. "We're also explaining that the gap between the decision made at UN headquarters in New York and the reality on the ground is liable to be so large it will lead to frustration, and thence to violence."
If, as seems likely, efforts to deter Abbas fail, the next step is trying to sway the vote. Israel plans to lobby over 100 of the UN's 193 members - those it feels it has a chance of influencing - in the hopes of persuading them to vote no, or at least abstain.
The PA is also waging a worldwide lobbying campaign. Though it usually commands an automatic majority in the General Assembly, it wants to win by a landslide, with 160 to 170 countries voting in favor. To meet that goal, it needs the support of at least half of EU members.
The Foreign Ministry claims that key EU states like Germany, France and Britain oppose the PA's UN bid. Even many Arab states aren't enthusiastic, it says, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia - both because they fear it could spark escalation, and because they think it will distract from their primary goal of toppling Bashar Assad's regime in Syria and ending the civil war there.
The move also has many opponents in the PA - led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who understands full well that it could lead to the PA's collapse. But Abbas, said ministry officials, seems determined: "He's afraid of ending like [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak," said one.