Palestinian Push For Statehood Comes To A Head

Originally published on September 21, 2011 9:54 am



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The world comes to New York next week for the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly. This year's meeting is going to feature a diplomatic showdown. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced yesterday that he'll seek Palestinian statehood through the Security Council, a move the United States has said it would veto. NPR's foreign correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us from Jerusalem.

Lourdes, thanks for being with us.

LOURDES GARCIA: You're welcome.

SIMON: And U.S. and European diplomats had been working hard to try and steer President Abbas away from this course. What does he risk by doing this?

GARCIA: The stakes are incredibly high, Scott. He's put himself on a direct collision course with America. America said it will use its veto power in the Security Council to protect Israel. And so there is no chance that this will go through at the Security Council. The Palestinians are then expected to take their bid to the General Assembly, where it is expected to pass.

And what that will get them is the status of a non-member observer state - not the full recognition they want. But even so, Israel and the U.S. have promised repercussions for even that move.

Israel, for example, says it could withhold taxes, which it transfers to the Palestinian Authority. There has even been talk on the right wing here of annexing settlement blocks, and even of annulling the Oslo Peace Accord - something that's been almost unthinkable.

And the U.S. Congress has also made its own threats. It says it may cut funding to the Palestinian Authority, leaving the P.A. unable to function. So it's a huge gamble.

SIMON: At the same time, what does Mahmoud Abbas possibly gain from this decision?

GARCIA: Well, certainly the support of the Palestinian people. That's first and foremost. The Palestinians have said that they've been through 20 years of negotiations that've led to nothing except more of the West Bank being swallowed up by Jewish settlements. There's no peace process to speak of, they say. So they're using this gambit, they say, to highlight those facts and to shift mediation into the international sphere - into the sphere of the international community, rather than just have America arbitrate.

There's huge anger on the Palestinian side at the U.S. right now, which they believe is pro-Israeli. Abbas believes statehood will make the Palestinians equal partners in future negotiations with Israel; that it will strengthen their position, if you will. Negotiations, of course, will have to happen at some point. But with statehood in their pocket, they could be able to apply more legal pressure in bodies like the International Criminal Court against the Israeli occupation. But you know, Scott, these are uncharted waters, and we'll really have to see how this plays out.

SIMON: You touched on some of Israel's reaction. What are some of the other reactions there?

GARCIA: Well, Israel has pretty much admitted it can't stop the Palestinians from achieving statehood in the General Assembly, unlike in the Security Council. The more moderate voices in Israel say hey, let's get ahead of this. We should get involved in helping to shape the resolution backing statehood, but saying that key issues - like borders in Jerusalem, those issues that are closest to Israel's heart - should be left to future negotiations.

B: They say it's a huge mistake that could lead to violence and a complete legal vacuum in the West Bank. They've deployed extra troops into the West Bank over the past few weeks in anticipation of violence, riots, demonstrations.

SIMON: And what's the reaction of other Arab states?

GARCIA: Well, this comes at a time of huge regional turmoil - with the Arab Spring, and the attendant uprisings and revolutions. The birth of a new state in the Middle East at this particular point, you know, could act as a lightning rod for the nationalist sentiments being whipped up across the region.

There's huge support for this across the Middle East; there's no doubt about that. And the U.S., in particular, is risking a lot here by backing Israel in the Security Council. Many Middle Eastern allies, like Saudi Arabia, have said that if the U.S. exercises its veto, it will have repercussions. You know, America's waning influence here will be sorely affected, many have said. So this U.N. bid is already seeing a ripple effect, at least for the U.S.

Israel's also facing its own troubles because of this. It's increasingly isolated amid tensions with Turkey and Egypt. So this can exacerbate those.

SIMON: NPR's foreign correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, in Jerusalem. Thanks so much.

GARCIA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.