Palestinian Authority

Palestinians hold posters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally supporting the Palestinian UN bid for observer state status, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. The Palestinians will request to upgrade their status on November 29. The status could add weight to Palestinian claims for a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war from Jordan. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The expected U.N. vote Thursday to recognize a state of Palestine will be far more than symbolic — it could give the Palestinians leverage in future border talks with Israel and open the way for possible war crimes charges against the Jewish state.


The Palestinians want the 193-member General Assembly to accept “Palestine,” on the lands Israel occupied in 1967, as a non-member observer state. They anticipate broad support.


For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the U.N. bid is a last-ditch attempt to stay relevant as a leader after years of failed peace talks with Israel, at a time when his Islamic militant Hamas rivals are gaining ground.

The U.S. and Israel have tried to block the quest for U.N. recognition of Palestine, saying it’s an attempt to bypass Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down four years ago.


The U.S. deputy secretary of state, William Burns, met with Abbas in New York on Wednesday, asking Abbas again to drop the idea and promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. Abbas told Burns it was too late.

Israel, meanwhile, appeared to back away from threats of drastic measures if the Palestinians get U.N. approval, with officials suggesting the government would take steps only if the Palestinians use their new status to act against Israel.


The Palestinians say they need U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967, to be able to resume negotiations with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s predecessors accepted the 1967 lines as a basis for border talks, with modifications to be negotiated, including land swaps that would enable Israel to annex some of the largest Jewish settlements. Those talks did not produce a deal, and the sides remained apart on other key issues.


Netanyahu rejects the 1967 lines as starting point while pressing ahead with settlement construction, leaving Abbas little incentive to resume negotiations. Israel goes to elections in January, and polls indicate Netanyahu has a strong chance of winning.

Israel argues that Abbas is trying to dictate the outcome of border talks by going to the U.N., though the recognition request presented to the world body calls for a quick resumption of negotiations on all core issues of the conflict, including borders.


It’s not clear if negotiations could resume even if Obama, freed from the constraints of his re-election campaign, can turn his attention to the Mideast conflict.

Abbas aides have given conflicting accounts of whether Abbas, once armed with global backing for the 1967 borders, will return to negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze. About half a million Israelis have settled on war-won land.


A construction stop is unlikely, even more so after hawks in Netanyahu’s Likud Party scored major gains in primaries this week.

Israel has said it is willing to resume talks without preconditions.


Government spokesman Mark Regev affirmed the position on Wednesday. Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians violate “both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations.”

Palestinian officials countered that their historic U.N. bid is meant to salvage a peace deal they say is being sabotaged by Israeli settlement expansion. “It is a last-ditch effort because we believe the two-state solution is in jeopardy as a result of these actions,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, told reporters in Ramallah on Wednesday.


The Palestinians expect that at least two-thirds of the 193 member states in the General Assembly will support them on Thursday, including a number of European countries, among them France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland.

Those opposed or abstaining include the U.S., Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. Ashrawi urged the U.S. to at least abstain, saying that voting no “would be seen as being really pathetic by the rest of the world” and hurt American interests in the Middle East.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that “in the long term, this region can only find peace through negotiations to resolve the Middle East conflict,” but she did not say whether her country would abstain or vote against.

“Nothing will really be gained either by unilateral Palestinian initiatives at the United Nations which aim for recognition nor by Israel’s continued building of settlements,” she said.


The vote comes at an important time domestically for Abbas. His Hamas rivals, who control Gaza, have gained popularity after holding their own during an Israeli offensive there earlier this month, aimed at stopping frequent Gaza rocket fire on Israel.

During the Gaza offensive, Abbas was sidelined in his compound in the West Bank, underscoring international concerns that the deadlock in peace efforts is weakening Palestinian pragmatists. Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, argues that negotiations with Israel are a waste of time, but Hamas leaders have come out in support of the U.N. bid in recent days.


Other than creating leverage in negotiations, U.N. recognition would also allow the Palestinians to seek membership in U.N. agencies and international bodies, for example making them eligible for loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Perhaps most significantly, it could open the door to a new attempt to join the International Criminal Court and seek an investigation into alleged war crimes by Israel in the occupied territories.


Abbas’ self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority, unilaterally recognized the court’s jurisdiction in 2009 and pressed prosecutors to open an investigation into Israel’s previous Gaza offensive. Prosecutors noted at the time that the court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, is only open to states. Israel has not signed the statute and does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

Ashrawi on Wednesday avoided explicit threats to take Israel to court, but suggested it’s an option. “If Israel refrains from settlement activities ... there is no immediate pressing need to go,” she said, adding that this could change if “Israel persists in its violations.”

Israel would respond “forcefully” if the Palestinians try to pursue war crimes charges against Israel at the ICC, said an Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss policy considerations. If the Palestinians use their upgraded international status “as a tool to confront Israel in the international arena, there will be a response,” he said.


Until then, he said, Israel will be bound by its obligations to the Palestinians under existing peace agreements, but won’t necessarily go beyond them. Earlier there was talk of Israel retaliating by canceling partial peace accords dating back to the 1990s.


In the West Bank, the view of Abbas’ quest for recognition was mixed. Many were bitter, saying they’ve heard too many promises that statehood is near and don’t believe a nod from the U.N. will make a difference.

“Nothing will come of it,” said Arwa Abu Helo, a 23-year-old student in Ramallah. “It’s just a way of misleading the public.”


Yousef Mohammed, a bank teller, said Abbas was trying to “gain the spotlight after Hamas said it won in Gaza.”

Hurriyeh Abdel Karim, 65, said she was willing to give Abbas a chance. “If he succeeds, maybe our life improves,” she said.

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Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed.

AMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — After months of wavering, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took a decisive step Monday toward reconciliation with the Islamic militant group Hamas, a move Israel promptly warned would close the door to any future peace talks.

In a deal brokered by Qatar, Abbas will head an interim unity government to prepare for general elections in the Palestinian territories in the coming months. The agreement appeared to bring reconciliation — key to any statehood ambitions — within reach for the first time since the two sides set up rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza in 2007.

Monday’s deal, signed in the Qatari capital of Doha by Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, put an end to recent efforts by the international community to revive long-stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the terms of Palestinian statehood. Abbas appears to have concluded that he has a better chance of repairing relations with Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror group, than reaching an agreement with Israel’s hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu quickly condemned the Doha deal. “It’s either peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. You can’t have them both,” he said in a warning to Abbas, who has enjoyed broad international support.

In moving closer to Hamas, Abbas risks losing some of that backing and hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid.

Qatar, awash with cash from vast oil and gas reserves, assured the Palestinians that it would help limit any political and financial damages, according to Palestinian officials close to the talks.

Whether the Palestinian Authority loses any of the roughly $1 billion in foreign aid it received each year may partly depend on the interim government’s political platform and Hamas’ willingness to stay in the background.

The new government is to be made up of politically independent experts, according to the Doha agreement. If headed by Abbas, devoid of Hamas members and run according to his political principles, it could try to make a case to be accepted by the West. Abbas aides said they were optimistic they could win international recognition.

The Quartet of international Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — has said it would deal with any Palestinian government that renounces violence, recognizes Israel and supports a negotiated peace deal. Abbas has embraced these principles, while Hamas rejects them.

Top Abbas aides Nabil Shaath and Azzam al-Ahmed said they are confident the new government will be based on the Quartet principles. In any case, they said, the interim government’s focus will be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections, not to negotiate with Israel. Such elections won’t be held in May, as initially envisioned, they said, but could take place several months later.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was seeking more information about what was agreed, and that reconciliation was an internal matter for Palestinians.

“What matters to us are the principles that guide a Palestinian government going forward, in order for them to be able to play a constructive role for peace and building an independent state,” Nuland said.

“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence,” she said. “It must recognize the state of Israel. And it must accept the previous agreements and obligations between the parties, including the road map. So those are our expectations.”

Nuland declined to say if the Fatah-Hamas arrangement would advance or hurt peace talks with Israel. She also appeared hesitant to address Netanyahu’s warning to Abbas that the Palestinians can have “peace with Hamas or peace with Israel.”

“We maintain that both of these parties ought to stay committed to this process,” Nuland told reporters.

The European Union offered qualified support Monday, saying it considers Palestinian reconciliation and elections as important steps toward Mideast peace. The EU, a major financial backer of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, “looks forward to continuing its support,” provided the new government meets the Quartet demands, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Last year, Abbas and Mashaal struck a reconciliation deal that later became bogged down in disagreement over who would head an interim government. Hamas strongly opposed Abbas’ initial choice of Salam Fayyad, the head of his Palestinian Authority.

Fayyad, an economist who is widely respected in the West, said Monday he welcomed the new deal even though it would cost him a job he has held since 2007.

The breakthrough came after two days of meetings between Abbas and Mashaal, hosted by Qatar’s emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. After the signing, Abbas said that “we promise our people to implement this agreement as soon as possible.”

Mashaal also said he was serious “about healing the wounds ... to reunite our people on the foundation of a political partnership, in order to devote our effort to resisting the (Israeli) occupation.”

Abbas and Hamas have had bitter ideological differences, with Abbas pursuing a deal with Israel and the violently anti-Israel Hamas dismissing such talks as a waste of time. The rift deepened with Hamas’ 2007 takeover of Gaza, which left Abbas with only the West Bank.

However, some of those differences seem to have narrowed in recent months.

Abbas has lost faith in reaching a deal, at least with Netanyahu. Low-level Israeli-Palestinian border talks last month — an attempt by the international community to revive formal negotiations after more than three years of paralysis — only highlighted the vast gaps.

The Palestinians want the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, with minor border adjustments, for their state. Israel’s outline of a border deal, presented last month, meant it wants to keep east Jerusalem and large chunks of the West Bank, not enough concessions to keep Abbas engaged.

Mashaal, meanwhile, has been prodding Hamas toward a more pragmatic stance that is closer to that of the group’s parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood scored election victories in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, and has urged Hamas to moderate and reconcile with Abbas.

However, Mashaal represents Hamas in exile and appears to have had differences with the movement’s more hardline leadership in Gaza, which stands to lose influence and jobs in a reconciliation deal. Some of the Gaza leaders have resisted Mashaal’s push for unity and moving closer to the Brotherhood, Hamas officials have said privately.

It remains unclear how much resistance Mashaal will now face from the Gaza leaders of the movement. One of the biggest challenges of reconciliation — how to blend the two sides’ separate security forces — remains unresolved.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, said he welcomed the agreement. Initial reports that a Hamas delegation from Gaza went to Doha were incorrect. The delegation headed to Cairo.

The agreement calls for rebuilding Gaza, which has been largely cut off from the world as part of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade imposed after the Hamas takeover. The blockade was eased in the past year, but not enough to revive the Gaza economy, including the vital construction industry, and many large-scale projects remain on hold.

Qatar is willing to spend as much as $10 billion to help repair the damage of the rift, including settling mutual grievances by supporters of Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement who at the height of tensions fought bloody street battles, the Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closed-door meetings with reporters. The figure could not be confirmed independently.

Al-Ahmed and Shaath, the Abbas aides, said they expect the composition of the new government to be announced during a Feb. 18 meeting of Palestinian political factions in Cairo.

They said Abbas would set an election date 90 days after the Central Elections Commissions has updated voter records in Gaza, a process that could take several weeks. The initial reconciliation pact envisioned elections in May, but this is no longer realistic, the aides said. Shaath said he believes the voting could take place by July.