U.S., Israel Have Few Options to Stop the Palestinian Diplomatic Momentum

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A passerby carries a Union Flag umbrella past a pro-Palestine protest outside London's Houses of Parliament, Oct. 13, 2014. British lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution recognizing Palestine.Credit: Reuters

The Palestinian struggle with Israel has reached its diplomatic stage. In the months since this summer’s Gaza war, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of genocide, while other Palestinian officials threatened to take Israel to the International Criminal Court. With Gaza – and the latest peace talks – in ruins, the Palestinians are confident the momentum is theirs.

Abbas addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly on Sept., 26, 2014 in New York. In his speech, Abbas accused Israel of carrying out genocide in Gaza.Credit: AFP

They appear to be right. This month Sweden vowed to recognize Palestine as an independent state, and British lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution to do the same. In the corridors of power in Ramallah these developments are celebrated as momentous achievements decades in the making.

In September, Abbas visited France, where he met with his French counterpart Francois Hollande, who hinted France might be ready to assist the Palestinians in their long-anticipated battle for statehood recognition at the United Nations Security Council. This summer, a European Union adopted a ban on poultry products produced in West Bank settlements, and will expand it to all dairy and fish products early next year. While the economic effects of the bans are minimal, Israeli officials have acknowledged their significance on the diplomatic front.

The EU is also preparing a new set of punitive sanctions to level against Israel for any future construction beyond the 1949 armistice line. The Dutch ambassador to Israel recently noted that Israel’s construction past that line places an EU offer for an Israeli “special relationship” with the bloc in jeopardy. 

For the Palestinians, Israel’s isolation in Europe is the fruit of years of diplomatic labor. Palestinian leaders have long-recognized that their primary area of leverage against the Jewish state would be in the court of world opinion. This public-relations campaign, known in Ramallah as “Palestine 194,” has seen the Palestinians upgrade their status at the UN General Assembly in 2012, sign 15 international organizations and treaties this past April and formulate the Security Council draft resolution last month.

With Europe now in their camp, the Palestinians will focus on two objectives: Securing as much money as possible from this month’s international Gaza donor conference in Cairo, (which included a hearty EU delegation) and drafting a Security Council resolution with a date for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories that could forestall the expected U.S. veto, or at least forcing an international conference on the conflict.

On the first front, the Palestinian Authority recently reaffirmed its reconciliation agreement with Hamas – a sop to international donors who have long been jittery about donating to a Hamas-run Gaza. On the second front – at the UN – the Palestinians might be closer to their goal than even they had realized. Recent estimates put 7 to 9 Council votes in their favor, and with traditional allies of the Palestinians such as Venezuela and Malaysia cycling into the Council, some Palestinian officials have speculated they could get as many as 12. Ten votes in the UNSC is the minimum to maintain a majority and pass a resolution, should the U.S. decide not to exercise its veto.

To be sure, the threat of the U.S. veto is very real. It’s what derailed the Palestinians’ Security Council campaign in 2011, when its mere threat was enough to make them take their efforts instead to the General Assembly, where resolutions are nonbinding.

Reports that Secretary of State John Kerry is contemplating launching a new round of peace talks are likely to fall on deaf ears in Ramallah should he not be able to guarantee the conditions – such as referring to the pre-1967 lines as a basis for negotiations – they consider red lines.

Options may be limited for the U.S. and Israel, but there is a political precedent for the former. In the late 90s, when Yasser Arafat was considering unilaterally declaring a state at the end of the Oslo period, the U.S. deployed Dennis Ross to Europe to counter the Palestinian diplomatic overtures. Even now, the U.S. could employ similar tactics with potential allies. Germany has said it would not follow in Sweden’s footsteps, and instead insisted any recognition of Palestine would still hinge on a negotiated agreement with Israel.

For Israel, it seems likely it will continue to keep this struggle on the rhetorical level. Israeli officials view this campaign as akin to "diplomatic terrorism," but seem unlikely or unwilling to do more than publicly label it as anything more than “troubling messages” or “short cuts.” Perhaps that’s wisest, too; Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recently said there are 522 organizations in which the Palestinians would seek membership should their Security Council campaign fail—surely Israel would not want to set a precedent for combating the Palestinians on every diplomatic front.

Whatever happens, it’s clear the Palestinians are now wholly committed to the internationalization of their strategy, and will be looking to other countries to replicate what Europe has begun.

Grant Rumley is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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