- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Israel is bracing for one of the greatest diplomatic challenges since its founding — a Palestinian bid for U.N. membership that has galvanized the Jewish state’s adversaries and left it searching for friends.

With a U.N. vote less than a week away, U.S. lawmakers threatened Wednesday to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority, while Israel weighed its own response.

The Obama administration, which says Palestinians should gain statehood only as part of negotiations with Israel, has vowed to veto the application if it comes before the U.N. Security Council.

Palestinians still could petition the General Assembly, where they have majority support, to upgrade the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) status from “observer” to “nonmember observer state” — a designation that allows membership on several U.N. panels.

Analysts have debated the consequences of the U.N. gambit, and some fear an outbreak of violence in the Middle East after the vote.

The U.N. showdown comes as Israel finds itself embroiled in separate diplomatic crises with Turkey and Egypt, two erstwhile regional allies.

Israel’s ambassador to Turkey was expelled this month after Israel refused to apologize for a deadly 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored Gaza-bound flotilla. Israel’s envoy to Egypt was forced to return home Friday after protesters stormed the Israeli Embassy.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo on Wednesday, has threatened to refer Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip to the International Court of Justice and have Turkish warships escort flotillas.

The confluence of diplomatic crises has given ammunition to domestic opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with opposition leader Tzipi Livni accusing his right-wing government Wednesday of leading the Jewish state to “to the worst possible diplomatic situation.”

“People must ask themselves, after all the slogans, if Israel today is stronger or weaker,” she said. “Is Israel’s security better or in greater doubt?”

Ms. Livni, who as foreign minister in the previous government led Israel in final-status talks with the Palestinians, said that “the only way to protect Israel’s interests is through a diplomatic process.”

The Palestinians walked out of short-lived, U.S.-sponsored talks in September after Israel refused to extend a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements that it had imposed at the behest of the Obama administration.

The Palestinians have been a people without a state since Israel was founded in the land formerly known as Palestine in the aftermath of World War II. They reside in divided territories — the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and the Gaza Strip run by Hamas, an Islamist militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction.

Their resort to unilateral action in the U.N. stems from a widely held Palestinian belief that Mr. Netanyahu is unwilling to offer the same sort of concessions that his predecessor Ehud Olmert did in talks with Mr. Abbas.

On Wednesday, a senior aide to Mr. Abbas said the Palestinians would return to negotiations if the Israeli government announces another freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and agrees to talks based on President Obama’s formulation proposed in May that the borders of the two states be based on Israel’s pre-1967 frontiers with “mutually agreed swaps.”

“We believe that both the conditions need to exist together, because they are connected to one another,” Nimmer Hammad, the Abbas aide, told Israeli Army Radio, claiming that dovish Israeli President Shimon Peres had “tried to get Netanyahu to agree to only one condition and he refused.”

Having abandoned hopes of averting a U.N. vote, Israeli officials have begun debating their actions on “the day after.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned the Palestinians on Wednesday that their bid would bring “harsh and grave consequences.”

Israel argues that by unilaterally seeking statehood — a violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords — the Palestinians are freeing Israel to renege on its own promises, such as not annexing West Bank territory or withholding tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

“Many different options are being discussed — and seriously,” an Israeli official told The Washington Times.

In Washington, lawmakers from both parties threatened the Palestinians with their own response: a cutoff of U.S. aid.

“By providing the Palestinians with $2.5 billion over the past five years, the U.S. has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behavior,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a hearing on the topic.

“It raises tough questions as to just what are the tangible benefits for the U.S., or for lasting peace and security between Israel and the Palestinians, derived from decades of assistance provided by the United States taxpayers,” the Florida Republican said.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, argued that the Palestinians’ U.N. move “dooms peace.” He said he is not “prepared to send one red cent more to the Palestinian Authority unless they prove to me that they’re serious about peace with Israel.”

Mr. Engel also claimed that in a meeting last week, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad “said to me that he thinks the Palestinians going to the U.N. is the stupidest thing that they could possibly do.”

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator, said some Palestinian officials are concerned that the U.N. move would damage U.S.-Palestinian relations and jeopardize Mr. Fayyad’s hard-fought gains on the economy, security and institution building.

Like Mr. al-Omari, Middle East analysts who testified during Wednesday’s hearing warned that a cutoff of U.S. aid would be counterproductive, potentially leading to a collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

“Policymakers must always ask themselves: ‘Who benefits from these actions?’ I think the group that stands to benefit most from a cutoff of aid to the PA would be Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s existence at all,” said David Makosvky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Elliot Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser, told lawmakers that they should “keep some powder dry” before seeing how Palestinian leaders word their U.N. resolution and act after the vote. But he recommend closing the PLO’s Washington office.

“What they’re basically saying if they go forward in the U.N. is, ‘The status we have … that’s not good enough,’” he said. “So my argument is that you would be responding, ‘OK, if the PLO doesn’t work anymore for you, why do we need to have a PLO office in Washington?’ “

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