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Palestinian UN Bid in Defiance of U.S. Seeks to Jolt Talks

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erakat
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said, “We’re determined to change the status quo.” Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian leaders plan to shake up the 19-year-old peace process and proceed with a United Nations statehood bid next month over U.S. objections, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said.

“It’s a moment of truth,” Erakat said in an interview at his West Bank office in Ramallah. “We’re determined to change the status quo.”

The move to upgrade the Palestine Liberation Organization’s status to that of a “non-member state” in the UN General Assembly comes a year after the failed effort to obtain full membership through the Security Council, a step the Obama administration blocked.

By forcing the statehood issue Palestinians risk jeopardizing international aid that accounts for about 14 percent of gross domestic product and inviting retaliatory measures from Israel, which captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.

“We are ready to go directly back to the negotiations once we return from the UN,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Ramallah today.

The Palestinian bid to upgrade its observer status at the UN is likely to pass the General Assembly, where the U.S. has no veto as it does in the Security Council, Erakat said.

If the vote succeeds, “Palestine will become a nation under occupation,” Erakat said. “The moment we get this, every single thing Israel does in east Jerusalem or the West Bank will become null and void.”

‘Eternal Capital’

The Palestinian cause has fallen into relative obscurity since formal peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government were frozen two years ago. There was only one mention of Palestinians during the Oct. 22 U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy.

Peace talks stumbled over the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Abbas said he would not return to negotiations unless Israel froze all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has refused to renew a 10-month freeze on construction that expired in 2010, and this week said Israel considered all of Jerusalem its “eternal capital.” The two sides first started direct peace negotiations with the Oslo Accords that were signed at the White House in 1993.

More than 327,000 Jewish Israelis live in 121 fortified West Bank settlements and other scattered outposts amid some 2.6 million Palestinians, according to 2010 census data. Another 193,000 Jews live in east Jerusalem, most in separate areas from the 281,000 Palestinians, according to 2010 data compiled by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

The settler population has tripled since the 1993 accords.

Sword to Neck

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, told campaign donors that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to “remain an unsolved problem” and that the Palestinians are uninterested in peace. Romney made the comments at a closed fundraiser in May and they became public when a video of the event was posted Sept. 18 by Mother Jones magazine.

Upgrading their status in the General Assembly would enable the Palestinians to join other UN agencies, including the International Criminal Court, where they could ask for Israel to be tried for war crimes, Erakat said.

“Israel’s main worry is the ICC,” said Erakat, who declined to specify whether they would proceed with the action. “They don’t want me to have a sword on their neck.”

‘New Onslaught’

Israeli leaders are concerned that a Palestinian victory at the General Assembly will bring a “new onslaught” against the Jewish state, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in a telephone interview when asked about Erakat’s comments.

“It will accomplish nothing except for poisoning the atmosphere so that it will be impossible to resume negotiations,” he said.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, told the Security Council last week that the Palestinian campaign should be shelved for now.

“Unilateral actions, including initiatives to grant Palestinians non-member state observer status at the United Nations, would only jeopardize the peace process and complicate efforts to return the parties to direct negotiations,” she said in an Oct. 15 speech.

Erakat, 57, a native of Jericho, studied political science at San Francisco State University and earned a doctorate in peace and conflict studies at the University of Bradford in the U.K.

Palestinian Economy

He’s been involved in negotiations since the 1991 Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid. After suffering a series of health setbacks, including a heart attack in May, Erakat says he now runs 8.5 kilometers (5.3 miles) a day on a treadmill, often while watching television to catch up on overnight news.

The West Bank and Gaza’s $10 billion economy expanded about 5 percent in 2011, down from an average of about 9 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment rose to 19 percent in the first half of 2012 from 16 percent in the previous year, according to the IMF.

Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were suspended when Israel began a military operation in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 in what it said was an attempt to stop rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled territory on its southern towns and cities. More than 65 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit Israel today, wounding at least three people and damaging property. The Israel Defense Forces staged four air raids, killing at least four Palestinians, according to Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for Gaza’s health ministry.

Hamas Rule

Gaza has been ruled by Hamas since 2007 when the Islamist movement violently ousted Abbas’s Fatah party loyalists. The two sides have failed in repeated efforts to reconcile and push jointly for independent statehood. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

Hamas must “resort to ballots, and not to bullets,” Erakat said. “If they don’t want to do this, they won’t be able to hold me hostage to my elections, my democracy and my UN bid. We’re not going to let them do that.”

Though Netanyahu and Abbas sought to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in September 2010, the talks broke down over the settlement issue.

When the Palestinian Authority was accepted last year into the UN cultural agency UNESCO, best known for its designation of “world heritage” sites, the U.S. response was to cut off funding that provides almost a quarter of the agency’s budget. The U.S. has said that American law would require similar cutoffs for any UN agency that grants the Palestinians the same status as member states.

U.S. Funding

The Palestinians receive about $550 million a year in aid from Washington, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“The Elders,” a group of senior international statesmen, encourage the Palestinians to submit their bid at the UN, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was cited as saying by Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency today.

If the two-state solution fails, Erakat says Israel will find itself by 2018 in control of a single “apartheid” state in which Palestinians outnumber the Jewish population.

“Mr. Netanyahu can’t maintain the status quo,” he said. “We aren’t going anywhere.”

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