The PA and September
Determined to petition the UN next month to recognise Palestine, leaders in Ramallah are busy convincing Washington and Tel Aviv that the move is nothing to worry about, writes Saleh Al-Naami
The meeting sponsored by Qatari Minister of International Cooperation Khaled Al-Ateya went on until 4am Friday morning, attended by Saeb Ereikat, member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and a number of top British international law experts at a hotel in London. The goal was to prepare a working paper of legal blueprints for the PLO to present to the UN when it applies for recognition of a Palestinian state in September.
The British legal experts assured Ereikat that based on international law the PLO has several strong legal arguments to present to the UN.
At first glance, the meeting seemed to indicate Palestinian determination to forge ahead with its September commitment, especially that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insists that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will seek out UN recognition for Palestine. But on closer look some dubious signs emerge about how serious the plan is, such as statements by Ereikat himself in which he said a date has not yet been set to go to the UN -- contrary to what Palestinian leaders have been saying, namely that this step will take place in September. Other signs include attempts by Abbas to re-launch bilateral talks with Israel in the hope that the outcome of these talks could be an alternative to going to the UN in September.
Palestinian and Israeli media have revealed that Israeli President Shimon Peres cancelled a secret meeting with Abbas after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to give Peres any positive message to deliver to Abbas that could result in progress and convince the Palestinian president not to go to the UN. Palestinian circles reject this position, arguing that the PA will achieve nothing by going to the UN while negotiations are in progress.
"Going to the UN should be part of a new strategy to replace the strategy of bilateral talks," suggested Hani Al-Masri, director of the Palestinian Media, Research and Studies Centre. "We have paid a steep price by relying on negotiations without achieving the goals we wanted. Going to the UN must be a permanent policy not just a temporary reaction because talks failed. Going to the Security Council must be the first chapter of a new alternative Palestinian strategy that includes other chapters, episodes and steps to manage the stage after the end and failure of the peace process. The September commitment should be the beginning of disengagement from bilateral negotiations that were launched by the Oslo Accords until today, and have only resulted in catastrophes, the loss of land, Jerusalem and our cause. They have divided the people and homeland, and set back the Palestinian cause on all levels."
Al-Masri underlined the many obstacles facing the September commitment, most prominently the objection of the US and key European states to recognising Palestinian statehood. He warned against the Quartet, which was unable to define the basis or frame of reference for the peace process. Al-Masri explained that the importance of the decision to the go to the UN "lies in the fact that it is a final divorce from the option of bilateral negotiations, and in preparation to embrace another strategy capable of achieving the goals that negotiations were unable to accomplish."
At the same time, he cautioned against banking too much on the rewards of going to the UN, pointing to the reality that the Palestinian territories are under Israeli military occupation whatever their legal status.
Even if the PA petitions the UN in September, there are signs that the PA leadership is doing its utmost to send reassuring signals to both Tel Aviv and Washington that the consequences of the move will not go beyond the UN headquarters. Particularly that Israel will not face repercussions on the ground. The strongest evidence of this is that Abbas agreed to send the heads of PA security agencies to Washington to meet with their Israeli counterparts under the auspices of President Barack Obama's adviser Dennis Ross. Ross wants to make sure that the security agencies in Ramallah don't allow September to be a turning point in popular Palestinian resistance to occupation and its manifestations.
The Americans and Israelis realise that PA security agencies would never allow a relaunch of armed resistance to the occupation in the West Bank, but they are worried that the September commitment will be a turning point for popular protests that could trigger a third Intifada.
Ross did not invite the leaders of security agencies only to secure a promise that they would not allow a popular uprising in the wake of September, but also to oversee agreement between security leaders in the PA and the Israeli army on a detailed plan to achieve this goal. The US wants to reassure Tel Aviv that Palestinian reaction after September will remain within proscribed political parameters. Practically speaking, this means that the US wants to establish a calming mechanism for Israeli fears that security conditions will deteriorate in a way that threatens Israel and exhausts the Israeli army and security agencies.
After the Washington meetings the PA sent clear and obvious signals that it does not intend to change the rules of engagement. It stepped up arrests against leaders and activists from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, despite the reconciliation agreement. Another indicator is the undermining of the reconciliation agreement by Abbas insisting that Salam Fayyad form the new interim government, although his appointment is strongly rejected by Hamas and contested by some within Fatah.
Meanwhile, suspicions abound over statements about a financial crisis in the PA and its inability to pay salaries, while economic experts insist that the PA's finances have not changed dramatically. Even if there were a crisis, Algeria recently transferred nearly $60 million and Saudi Arabia made a decision to transfer urgent financial aid.
Bassam Zakarna, chairman of the syndicate of PA employees and a prominent figure in Fatah, said the financial crisis Fayyad is claiming is contrived. Zakarna accused the government in Ramallah, saying the PA treasury has the liquidity to pay salaries but that it chooses not to in order to frustrate PA civil servants.
Other observers believe the supposed salaries crisis is aimed at distracting people to achieve one of two goals. Either to lay the ground for a Palestinian decision not to go to the UN, or to postpone the move indefinitely; or to cool down the reaction of the Palestinian people regarding the September commitment by distracting the people with financial woes.
With weeks to go, it is still anyone's guess what the outcome of September for the Palestinians will be. While Ramallah's leaders are saying that nothing will change, without indicating to the world community, especially the US, that the September move is a turning point, there is no chance that this step will put pressure on the West to change its stance towards Israel. On the other hand, the status quo ante is not an option -- at least if PA leaders want to avoid the wrath of the Palestinian street.