Sixty-five years ago today, the United Nations voted on a partition plan that would have created two states: one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish people accepted. The Arab world did not, and attacked. That proved to be a terrible setback for Palestinians. In the wars that followed, Israel came to control almost all of the allotted territory.
Today, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is asking for a “do-over” of sorts. He wants Palestine to be recognized as a “nonmember” state at the United Nations. It is a foregone conclusion that his resolution will pass overwhelmingly. The vast majority of countries in the world support it, including France, Russia, and China. There is no veto in the General Assembly, so the United States can’t prevent the resolution from passing.
Given the certainty of the loss, it is difficult to understand why US diplomats have spent so much energy fighting against the measure. The United States, after all, supports a peaceful Palestinian state, but believes that only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can bring it about. That’s very true. But going to great lengths now to punish Abbas for what is an understandable gesture, given the long impasse in the peace talks, would be counterproductive.
US threats to cut off aid to Palestinians — as well as any UN agency that recognizes a Palestinian state — have prevented this resolution for nearly two decades. The significance of today’s vote is not its outcome, which was never in question, but rather the fact that Abbas submitted his resolution despite the US threats.
His move indicates that he feels Palestinians have relied too heavily on the United States to deliver the dream of statehood and is willing to search elsewhere for support. It is a desperate move from a man who knows he is running out of time.
The United States gives roughly $600 million a year to the Palestinian Authority, and Congress already partly cut off funds in the wake of a similar bid by Abbas in the UN Security Council last year. But cutting off all remaining aid to Abbas would be a dangerous overreaction. It would be a travesty to treat Abbas, who has accepted Israel’s right to exist and cooperated with Israeli defense forces, the same as Hamas, which refuses to accept Israel and uses suicide bombings. Starving Abbas of funds would only strengthen Hamas, and risk the collapse of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, upon which the United States and Israel depend to keep order in the West Bank.
Withholding aid is all the more difficult to justify when the UN vote is largely symbolic. It merely upgrades the status of the Palestinian mission from an “observer” — a classification it shares with the Holy See — to a “nonmember state.” Palestinians still would not be able to vote in the General Assembly. They would, however, be able to sign onto some treaties and join the International Criminal Court, if its members agree to it. Israel fears Abbas would do just that, and transfer the Palestinian struggle to international courts.
It is not too late to come to some kind of agreement with Abbas that would put any chance of international court actions on indefinite hold in exchange for a promise to maintain aid. In a better world, Israel and Abbas would have found a compromise to allow Israel to vote with the rest of the world in support of the resolution. Then Hamas would be left standing alone, not Israel.