The Palestinians’ new weapon
The Palestinians have finally come up with a strategy that may produce some results. But only by accident, so to speak.
They were fed up with 19 years of “direct negotiations” with Israel that never made any progress toward a final peace settlement, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas badly needed some small victory to prop up his failing popularity. So he decided to seek international recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state.
He didn’t say that he was abandoning direct negotiations with Israel forever, but he insisted that they will not resume until Israel stops building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – which will be shortly before hell freezes over. In the meantime, he is trying to strengthen the extremely weak bargaining position of the Palestinians by seeking membership in the United Nations.
He knows very well that the Palestinians cannot get full membership in the U.N. because the United States has promised to veto that. But membership in the various U.N. agencies like the World Bank and the World Health Organization is not subject to a veto, and each organization they join would move Palestine a tiny step closer to real statehood.
Their first target was the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On Oct. 31 (last Monday) they were granted full membership by a vote of 107 in favor, 14 against and 52 abstaining.
The U.S. immediately cut off its huge contribution to UNESCO’s annual budget – 22 percent of the total – as a punishment for voting the wrong way. The UNESCO vote, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Israel’s response was equally drastic. It announced that it was speeding up the construction of 2,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. It has also cut off the transfer of tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on goods passing through Israel: about $100 million a month, which provides half of the PA’s domestic revenue. Without it, the PA’s civil servants will go unpaid.
Painful measures for the Palestinians, but Israel is always building more homes for Jews in the West Bank, and it cuts off the flow of revenue to the Palestinians whenever it feels like it: This is the second time this year. Nothing new there. And Washington had no choice: It is obliged by a 1990 U.S. law to cut funding to any organization that recognizes the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But this law, which the Palestinians were barely aware of when they adopted their current strategy, presents them with an extraordinary opportunity. There are 14 other U.N. specialized agencies, from the Food and Agriculture Organization to the World Meteorological Organization, most of them with similar membership requirements to UNESCO: a two-thirds majority vote of the existing members and no veto.
If the Palestinians apply for membership in each of these organizations over the next year or so, they will probably get the same 88 percent majority when it comes to a vote on membership. None of the countries that defied the U.S. and voted Palestine into UNESCO is going to humiliate itself by changing its vote at other U.N. agencies. And each time, Washington will be forced by law to cease its contributions to that agency.
The U.S. would not actually lose its membership by stopping its financial support – at least not for a good long while – but it would lose all practical influence on these agencies, which do a great deal of the work of running the world. It would be a diplomatic disaster for Washington, and it would test America’s reflexive compliance with Israel’s agenda, perhaps to the breaking point.
This interesting possibility is only now getting the full attention of decision-makers in the U.S., Israel and Palestine. It gives the Palestinians unprecedented leverage over the U.S., but it is a tool that must be used with caution, for Washington cannot back down. The U.S. operates under the rule of law, and the Obama administration must enforce this archaic law unless and until Congress rescinds it.
The law, which prohibits the U.S. from paying funds to any U.N. agency that accepts the Palestinians as full members, was passed in 1990, before the Oslo Accords were signed and at a time when neither Israel nor the U.S. even spoke to the Palestinian leadership. But Congress, which is often described by Washington insiders (though always off the record) as “Israeli-occupied territory,” will certainly not repeal it.
Using this new lever that has fallen into his hands, Mahmoud Abbas could actually drive the U.S. out of most international agencies if he wanted, but that is not in his interest. What he actually needs is some major pressure on Israel from Washington to stop building settlements and start negotiating seriously.
That cannot happen in an election year, so perhaps Abbas will wait until the end of next year and the outcome of the American presidential election. The U.S. law will stay on the books, but if Barack Obama wins re-election in 2012, maybe then he will risk putting pressure on Israel rather than see the U.S. driven into what amounts to diplomatic isolation. Or maybe he won’t.