Analysis: Mideast heading into dangerous paralysis

September 24, 2011 - 2:40 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Palestinians watch their President Mahmoud Abbas on TV as he addresses the General Assembly of the UN, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Friday Sept. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — With combative speeches at the United Nations, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders have locked themselves into positions that seem to preclude a resumption of peace talks and usher in a season of confrontation over a Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will now focus on rallying international support, his aides say, in hopes of pressuring and isolating Israel and driving up the political cost of holding on to the lands it occupied in the 1967 war.

Abbas insisted Saturday that he won't go back to talks without an Israeli settlement freeze or acceptance of pre-1967 borders as a starting point. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while calling for new talks, gave no sign he's willing to consider those demands. Instead, he reiterated in interviews with Israeli TV stations that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that talks would first have to address security arrangements.

Considering the vast gaps, international mediators did not offer bridging proposals after the two leaders' speeches, instead simply urging a resumption of talks and a deal within about a year. But such target dates have little meaning without real pressure and previous timetables were quickly cast aside.

The Palestinians, bypassing what they see as pointless talks with the historically hardline Netanyahu, will now try to boost their standing, mainly at the U.N. On Friday, Abbas submitted a request for U.N. membership of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967 and since populated with half a million settlers living among about 4 million Palestinians.

Even though the recognition bid is sure to be derailed — either by insufficient support or a U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Counci — the Palestinians stand a good chance of a General Assembly status upgrade that would grant them access to U.N. agencies and international courts. The aim is to "pressure Israel through all U.N. agencies," said Abbas aide Nabil Shaath.

Some Palestinians said the new strategy is nothing less than a paradigm shift, following two decades in which the Palestinians went along with the U.S.-led approach that the two sides work out their disputes on their own, despite the stark imbalance in military power.

Twice over the past decade, the negotiators seemed to make serious progress, with Israel — which had pulled its troops out of Gaza in 2005 — also offering to give up large chunks of the West Bank and parts of east Jerusalem. In the end, gaps could not be bridged.

"For a long time, the program was just to negotiate with the occupier," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent West Bank politician. "Now we should defy our occupier. We gave them enough time."

Abbas' new approach, especially his defiance of the Obama administration, which opposes the recognition bid, has proven to be hugely popular at home. The Palestinian leader has clearly enjoyed the sudden adoration from flag-waving crowds after six years in power with few political achievements and many setbacks, including the loss of Gaza to the Islamic militant Hamas in 2007.

On the flight home Saturday, he told reporters he was exhausted after marathon meetings and intense pressure on him to desist, even from some Arab countries, but that "this didn't affect our spirits to reach the goal and deliver the Palestinian message officially."

Yet he also cautioned that "we don't want to push people to have high expectations."

Palestinian officials acknowledged that there is no detailed plan to move forward, beyond calling for nonviolent protests against Israel and eventually asking the General Assembly to admit Palestine as a non-member observer state, with the implied recognition of the pre-1967 borders.

Abbas has not said how he'll handle his Hamas rivals, who have been criticizing his U.N. recognition bid because it would limit a Palestinian state to the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

A power-sharing deal with Hamas, struck in principle earlier this year, is currently on hold. Reviving an alliance with the militants, who still seek Israel's destruction, could cost the Palestinian leader international support at a crucial time. On the other hand, Abbas cannot claim to control a key Palestinian territory, Gaza, and rocket fire from there on Israel has drawn reprisals and complicated matters.

In the quest for recognition, it remains unclear whether the Palestinians have the required support of at least nine of the 15 Security Council members, which would trigger a U.S veto. The Obama administration hopes to get a blocking majority and avoid a veto, which would hurt its fragile standing in the Arab world. Palestinian officials have said trying to force the U.S. to use the veto is part of their new pressure campaign.

Abbas said Saturday that he expects the Security Council to decide in weeks, not months.

If the Palestinians get a sense that the U.S. is trying to stall a vote in the Security Council, they might turn to the General Assembly in the meantime, said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador. "I think there is no problem for us to apply for the non-member state while our application is processed in the Security Council," he said.

Netanyahu's options of counterpressure appear limited at the moment.

Members of his ruling coalition have called for punitive steps, from annexing parts of the West Bank to withholding millions of dollars in monthly tax rebates Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians. The Israeli leader has not said how he would respond. However, retaliation might be counterproductive and only generate more international sympathy for the Palestinians.

Palestinian officials have dismissed threats from the U.S. Congress to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid, noting that keeping Abbas' West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in place is a key U.S. interest, particularly security forces that cooperate closely with Israel in preventing attacks by militants. In their statement calling for a resumption of talks, the Quartet of Mideast mediators, of which the U.S. is a leading member, called for another conference to raise aid for Abbas.

While Abbas was upbeat following the standing ovations he received at the General Assembly, Netanyahu also seemed pleased with his U.N. performance and the strong show of U.S. support.

Asked by Israel TV's Channel 10 if the trip went well, he said: "I think so. I came to stop something that is not good for Israel. To thwart a maneuver that is problematic diplomatically. To present our truth to the world that is used to hearing lies and slander about Israel and Zionism."

Netanyahu said he hoped the Palestinians would eventually return to "serious talks about how to ensure security that is the foundation of peace and also to recognize us and be rid of these demands of flooding Israel with refugees."

The Israeli leader has repeatedly appealed for a resumption of talks without the conditions required by Abbas, such as a settlement freeze and adopting the pre-1967 frontiers as a baseline. The Palestinians say they're simply insisting on parameters adopted by the international community, and that Netanyahu wants endless talks as a shield for continued settlement building.

In May, President Barack Obama for the first time laid out his own framework for talks, saying the pre-1967 frontier should serve as a baseline, angering Israel. Obama did not repeat those words in his U.N. speech earlier this week, apparently trying to avoid controversial statements as the campaign for the 2012 U.S. presidential election kicks into gear.

The region is now headed into a dangerous year of paralysis, said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.

"We are not going to make any progress and this poses the danger of the opposite, deterioration," he said. "Obama made it clear that he is not actively sponsoring peace talks or any serious process in the coming year. Netanyahu has nothing new to offer, and Abbas will get some sort of recognition of a state, but that's not a state."

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Daraghmeh reported from the United Nations.