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Abbas Tries to Outflank Hamas With Renewed UN Statehood Bid

Abbas Tries to Outflank Hamas With Return to UN Statehood Bid
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, left, and Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations pose for photos at UN headquarters on Nov. 28. Photographer:John Moore/Getty Images

Mahmoud Abbas will push again for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations today, trying to seize the momentum from his Hamas rivals who say they’ve proved rocket attacks win more ground from Israel than diplomacy.

A year after U.S. pressure killed his bid in the policy-making Security Council to become the UN’s 194th member, Abbas is taking the lesser step of seeking acceptance of the state of Palestine by the UN General Assembly. The move would upgrade the status of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, headed by Abbas, without making the new state a full UN member. Israel and the U.S. have threatened to cut money flows in response.

Today’s step “is indeed a positive, constructive effort aimed at preserving the two-state solution,” Abbas, who is in New York, said in a speech read by Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki to members of the UN Security Council. “Our preference remains full membership in the United Nations, which is our legitimate, legal and historic right.”

The vote comes a week after the cease-fire that halted eight days of bloodshed between Israel and Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union. Hamas leaders, who seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, portrayed the outcome as a victory that will ultimately force Israel to lift its blockade of the seaside territory, home to 1.6 million Palestinians. In contrast, they say, Abbas has achieved little with his diplomatic campaign.

‘Political Survival’

“For Abbas, this means political survival,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. After eight years of steering the Palestinian nationalist movement since the death of Yasser Arafat, “he needs something to show.”

Returning to the UN is an expensive gamble for Abbas. Congress has threatened to cut off $500 million of annual aid if the General Assembly resolution is passed. Israel plans to withhold 800 million shekels ($210 million) of tax revenue it would normally transfer to the Palestinians, and use it to pay their debt to Israel Electric Corp.

“The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties directly; through valid negotiations between themselves, and not through UN resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today, according to an e-mailed statement. “And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.”

Broad Support

Unlike in the 15-member Security Council, the U.S. carries no veto in the General Assembly and the measure to give the PLO a status on par with the Vatican has broad support.

France, Spain and Russia have announced they favor the upgrade. All three voted last year for the Palestinians’ successful bid to become full members of Unesco, the UN’s cultural agency. The U.K. said it’s ready to back Abbas’s bid if he gives assurances including a commitment to resume unconditional peace talks with Israel, and will otherwise abstain as it did at Unesco.

India and Pakistan today said they support the Palestinian effort. Australia will abstain from the vote, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this week.

The U.S. cut off its contributions to Unesco after the Palestinian vote. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has said repeatedly that “unilateral actions” such as the statehood bid would derail efforts to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

IMF Warning

Negotiations broke down two years ago when Netanyahu refused to extend a partial 10-month construction freeze in West Bank settlements and the Palestinians said they wouldn’t resume talks as long as building continued.

The Palestinian financial system has been prepared to withstand punitive actions by Israel and the U.S., Palestinian Monetary Authority Governor Jihad Al Wazir said in an interview earlier this month. He said such responses won’t last long and he expects wealthy Arab states to make up the losses.

The International Monetary Fund warned in September that the $10 billion Palestinian economy is facing “serious risks” as foreign aid declines, and urged the government to find other ways to cover its financing gap. The deficit this year is projected at $1.3 billion, compared with a planned $950 million, Al Wazir said.

The economy of the West Bank and Gaza probably grew about 5 percent last year, down from an average of 9 percent in the previous three years, and unemployment rose to 19 percent in the first half of 2012, according to the IMF.

War Crimes

Success at the General Assembly may open the door for Palestinians to join other UN agencies, including the International Criminal Court, where they could ask for Israel to be tried for war crimes.

In Gaza, Hamas leaders voiced tepid support for the UN effort while maintaining that last week’s confrontation, in which 175 Palestinians and six Israelis lost their lives, did more to advance the cause of statehood. Hamas and other Palestinian factions launched about 1,400 rockets, missiles and mortars at Israel, some reaching as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“We don’t oppose his going back to the UN,” Ahmed Yousef, a senior aide to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said in a telephone interview from Gaza City. “We just don’t think it’s going to do much for the political aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

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