Palestinian Statehood Bid Adds Urgency for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Article excerpt

Quartet envoy Tony Blair held talks today to prod Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table amid concern about a looming UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

Quartet envoy Tony Blair held talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah today to convince Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations, a mission given added urgency by a looming vote on Palestinian membership in the United Nations.

Amid widespread pessimism that the two sides aren't even interested in coming back to the table, the quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the US, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations - fears that the Palestinian bid could further unravel the peace process and isolate Israel.

"The Quartet is panicked because there's going to be a vote soon," says Diana Bhuttu, a former Palestinian negotiator. "They want to make this [membership] application go away quietly and slip it under the radar... In the current situation, it's not going to go away."

Pressure on Abbas to drop UN bid

Mr. Blair, the former British prime minister, is trying to get the two sides to agree on a framework for peace talks. But the international community has so far failed to come up with a compelling incentive for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon his much-touted bid for UN recognition and to drop his demands for a settlement freeze.

Their task became even more difficult last week when Mr. Abbas's rivals in the Hamas party scored major popularity points by securing the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in 2006. Should Abbas to back down from the statehood bid, which has won him widespread support among the Palestinian public, he could risk ceding ground to his Hamas rivals.

One potential solution would be another prisoner release, this time between the Israel and the PA - a step PA officials have demanded in the wake of the Shalit swap. If prominent militants were included in such a release, it could provide Abbas a way back to talks, says Ms. Bhuttu.

But that's unlikely to happen because hard-liners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration are loath to boost Abbas after he launched the UN statehood bid, which they see as a unilateral act that reflects bad faith in the negotiating process. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman even went so far as to express hope that Abbas would resign.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US, said on Tuesday that the United Nations membership bid is a "contravention" of the territory-for-peace principle that has guided Mideast peacemaking since Israel conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. He said that were the bid to succeed, it would be an "immense blow" to the peace process because it would hamper Abbas's ability to sell a deal to his people in the future.

"Mahmoud Abbas is going to come back to his people and say, you're going to have to make some painful sacrifices. But you're going to get something in return - you're going to get a Palestinian state," he said, speaking at a Monitor breakfast in Washington. "The Palestinian people are going to look at him and say, 'Well, wait a minute, we already have a Palestinian state. Why are you making all these painful sacrifices?' "

US supports freedom in Tunisia, Libya, Syria - why not in the West Bank?

While Mr. Oren and other Israeli officials insist on direct negotiations as the only path to peace, Palestinian leaders are exasperated with nearly two decades of talks that have yet to deliver the independence they have long sought.

From the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which Palestinians see as jeopardizing their aspirations for a state on the same land, has nearly tripled to more than 300,000. …