The Associated Press reported late Tuesday on what the outlet described as a “surprise move” by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to go to a range of United Nations bodies requesting membership for the “State of Palestine.” The AP noted that the declaration came “despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel.”
The Palestinians had spent recent weeks rejecting a range of U.S. bridging proposals, and Abbas went so far as to flatly reject “even holding a discussion” on the U.S.-backed condition that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israel had in recent days nonetheless made an offer to extend talks, and had even reportedly teed up another prisoner release aimed at securing further negotiations. The Israelis had undertaken three previous rounds of releases to bring the Palestinians to the table and keep them there.
The Israeli offer to extend talks was rejected.
According to the AP, Abbas’s rollout came off as somewhat less than well-planned:
Abbas signed “State of Palestine” applications for 15 U.N. agencies in a hastily convened ceremony televised live from his West Bank headquarters. Abbas said he was compelled to take action because Israel had failed to carry out a promised released of veteran Palestinian prisoners. “We will apply to 15 agencies and conventions immediately,” Abbas said after leading members of his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization supported the decision unanimously by a show of hands.
Abbas said that he would like to continue pursuing negotiations with the Israelis despite the Palestinian gambit. The position is likely to come off as too clever by half. The entire basis of the nine months-long U.S.-backed peace initiative was that the Palestinians would abstain from seeking membership in UN institutions. Kerry almost immediately canceled a planned trip to Ramallah, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, in light of Abbas’s decision.
U.S. officials up to and including President Barack Obama have long opposed unilateral moves by the Palestinians to gain membership in UN institutions. Their reasons have ranged from the likely damage that such moves inflict on the peace process all the way up to the complications they create for U.S. global diplomacy. A Heritage Foundation report co-authored by Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips a few years ago went even further, bluntly identifying past unilateral moves as “threaten[ing] United States and Israeli interests” and “undermin[ing] all internationally accepted frameworks for peace.”
Any Palestinian success would immediately trigger black-letter U.S. laws that cut off funds to UN bodies that give the Palestinians membership. When the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ status, the Congressional backlash was intense. When UNESCO accepted Palestinian membership – over the opposition of the White House, the State Department, and the U.S.’s then-ambassador to the UN Susan Rice – Washington immediately cut off its funds to the body, crippling it.
Palestinian moves at the UN have also historically put the U.S. at odds with a range of allies. The tensions have – moreover – not been accidental. Palestinian officials have instead actively sought to split Washington from its allies. A previous campaign saw Abbas going to both the Arab League and the European Union to push back against the Obama administration. They resulted in tension with key allies.
Back in the Middle East, Palestinian gambits at the UN have been seen as corroding the basic framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The land-for-peace formula requires the Israelis to give up tangible, functionally irreversible concessions in exchange for Palestinian commitments. The fear has always been that the Palestinians will negotiate only as long as they can extract territory or prisoners, and that they will then pocket what they’ve gained and walk away. Abbas’s moves seem set to confirm those fears.
The bait-and-switch – pocketing three releases and then walking away – seems to prove the point, and had actually been flagged as a possibility by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon in recent days. Unilateral moves at the UN also by definition violate Palestinian commitments under the Oslo Accords, which prohibit “any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” Israel bought and sealed those obligations at the cost of both territory and other functionally irreversible concessions.
The upshot is that the Palestinians seem to be abandoning not just current negotiations, which the Israelis sought to secure with prisoner releases, but the entire Oslo framework, for which the Israelis gave up territory over decades. The result risks deepening skepticism toward the fundamental peace process framework.
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