JERUSALEM — Friday has risen like a high noon over the Israeli and Palestinian horizons, as the day in which all claims will be staked even if nothing will be determined.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave successive speeches within one hour of each other in New York Friday, at their turns during the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting.
And Abbas presented Palestine’s bid for recognition as a full member state to the U.N. Security Council.
Procedurally, a vote won't be able to take place right away. And, significantly, in his U.N. speech at the General Assembly opening gala earlier this week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that if the resolution were to pass, the United States would issue a veto.
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The potential veto, while well-received by a relieved Israel, would be perceived as a major foreign policy setback for the Obama administration, which has failed in its attempts to leverage the Palestinian Authority away from the United Nations bid and back to the table of bilateral negotiations with Israel.
If the bid proceeds as now planned, past a successful Security Council vote and an American veto, the Palestinians, with well-organized allies among the powerful Gulf states, look set to resubmit their petition to the greater U.N. General Assembly. The Palestinians claim to be only two votes short of the support they need at the General Assembly.
If Palestine is recognized as a full member state of the international body, it will be the 194th country to join the United Nations.
In Jerusalem and in Ramallah, security personnel geared up in unusual numbers to stave off possible violence as Muslims gathered in mosques for weekly Friday prayers. Israel banned men under the age of 50 without Israeli ID cards form attending the Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.
In Ramallah, there were concerns that the Palestinian Authority celebrations set to coincide with the end of the holy day and Abbas’ speech could devolve into angry or possibly even violent protests against Obama’s speech, which was perceived in the region as a strongly pro-Israel statement and, in Arab nations, as all too one-sided.
For now, the Palestinian bid seems to be part provocation, part strategic maneuver, resulting from frustrated and truncated talks with the Israelis, and part kabuki theater. Technical requirements demanded by United Nations for full member states, such as defined borders, clear governmental structure and paid dues have yet to be addressed.
The Israeli and American failure to deter Abbas from this move has already brought about certain consequences. The Palestinian team, which unusually includes a member of the Israeli parliament, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, has already announced that it will not return to U.S.-brokered negotiations.
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The loss of American prestige may eventually harm Israeli and American interests in the region. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has leapt in to fill the breach (and address U.N. requirements) by offering a compromise whereby Palestine would be automatically advanced to full observer nation status, like that of the Holy See, with a rigid one year schedule for outstanding issues to be resolved before the new state is accepted at the United Nations.
Sarkozy has for many years presented himself as an alternative broker for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But, until now, he has not been seen as a realistic alternative to the Americans. He faces a difficult battle for re-election this year and a prominent international role would burnish his credentials.
Electoral considerations are also at play in Israel, in Palestine and, of course, in the United States, where Obama faces a serious challenge by Republicans to the traditional Democratic hegemony over the Jewish vote.
Abbas has announced he will be retiring from politics within a year, but has made similar pronouncements in the past and seems eager, looking at the major efforts his government has made to ramp up the importance of the U.N. bid, to be seen as a heroic global figure in the mold of former Palestinian Liberation Organization President Yasser Arafat.
In Israel, Netanyahu is confronting what may be a perfect political storm. The labor party has been steadily rising in the polls and just two days ago elected a new leader, Shelly Yachimovitch, who for the first time in more than a decade presents a compelling new voice on the center-left.
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The wave of social protests, led by students and young people, that washed over Israel this summer will reach an apogee on Monday, with the presentation of the government-sponsored report on changing the nation’s economic priorities. This is not expected to favor Netanyahu’s public image.
Lastly, he now faces reinforced opposition from the center- and hard-right, in the form of Kadima leader Tsippi Livni, who has found her voice leading a potent critique of the government’s botched mishandling of the Palestinian bid at the United Nations and the failure to reignite negotiations. On the far right, Netanyahu will have to confront his own foreign minister, the truculent Avigdor Leiberman, who is attempting to parlay Israeli fears of imposed negotiation results or a new intifada into electoral ballast.
Israeli elections are now scheduled for early 2013, but few now believe the government will last its full term.