RAMALLAH – Reiterating the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to continue with the US-led peace process until April 29, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki says he does not think the Americans will punish the Palestinians politically or financially for their bid to join 13 United Nations agencies – a move criticized by US President Barack Obama as “disappointing.”
On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appeared on live television to sign ‘letters of accession’ to join UN agencies, including the four Geneva Conventions, Vienna conventions, the Hague Convention and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
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A senior Israeli official speaking anonymously told The Media Line that his government was keeping silent because “no one wants to pour oil on the fire.”
Al-Malki handed the documents to the UN Secretary General’s Personal representative, Robert Serry, on Wednesday morning.
“I do not expect any consequences coming from the US Congress regarding this step at all,” he told journalists at a joint news conference after receiving the 2013 European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) progress report for Palestine from European Union Representative John Gatt-Rutter.
“It has nothing to do with the decision taken by Congress back in the 80’s to punish the Palestinians for becoming members of UN specialized agencies,” Al-Malki said referring to US law that prohibits funding to the PA if it receives UN membership outside the negotiation process.
The EU, through Gatt-Rutter, responded with caution, stating that it hoped Abbas would not only continue with negotiations but succeed. “We believe (the bilateral talks) continue to present a unique opportunity to make peace, to reach peace, achieve peace, to fulfill a two-state solution which remains the base of our position,” he said.
According to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Negotiations Affairs Department, there are a total of 63 treaties, conventions and agencies that the ‘State of Palestine’ has the ability to join and “will do so in the best interests of its people, as and when it sees fit.”
The Palestinian Authority earned non-member observer-state status at the UN in November 2012.
“We did not talk about us becoming members of the UN specialized agencies in order for the Congress to activate or re-activate their decision,” Al Malki said.
The move came two weeks before the deadline set by US Secretary of State John Kerry for the Palestinians and Israel to reach a “framework” agreement and after Israel refused to release the last of four groups of Palestinian prisoners pursuant to a commitment made at the start of Kerry’s mission.
“I don’t think this will harm in any way the possibilities to continue the negotiations or it will deter others from continuing their efforts,” Al Malki said. He also said this decision is not meant to undermine the efforts of Kerry or the international community.
“We gave a chance for the American administration to use its relationship with the Israelis to convince them to fulfill and implement their obligations. After we were convinced they were not going to do this, we made this move to protect the Palestinians,” he said.
A source close to Abbas told The Media Line that Palestinian leadership discussed the possibility that Israel would fail to go through with the fourth release two months ago, and while they unanimously agreed to proceed to the UN, Abbas himself voted against it happening before the April 29 deadline had passed.
The source went on to say that in one of the meetings Abbas told members of his Fatah party and the PLO, that he “would be ready to listen to any new suggestions regarding choices after the April 29 deadline” since he had made a “commitment to the Obama administration.”
Confidence that the US will not take punitive action also comes from the belief among Palestinian leadership that because the effect of submitting the documents is not immediate, the move is somewhat “symbolic,” meant to send a clear message to the Israelis and the Americans that something has to be done.
Khalil Shaheen, the Director of Research and Policies at the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, explained to The Media Line that, “signing is one thing and joining is another.”
He said that, “The American position was weak in mediating the parties. Instead of putting pressure on (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu, (to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners), Kerry tried to put it on Abbas,” he said.
Shaheen said he thinks Abbas’ decision is “bad timing” for Kerry and the Obama administration, “who don’t really need this” against the background of what’s going on in Ukraine and Syria.
“This is something that really poses a profound threat to Israel,” US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said Wednesday during a hearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee.
If the Palestinians were to gain standing before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, they would be able to challenge Israel’s presence in the West Bank and bring literally hundreds of actions against individual Israelis.
But the move is seen by many as a double-edged sword. US legislation requires that funding to the Palestinians will be cut off if the Palestinians initiate an International Criminal Court judicially authorized investigation, or actively support an investigation that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.
It also states clearly that assistance to the PA will be severed if “the Palestinians obtain the same standing as member states or full membership as a state in the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof outside an agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.”
An employee of an American organization that provides funding for Palestinian projects told The Media Line that “there is already talk that the program could be closed and that American-funded organizations may have to pack up and go home.”
But Shaheen disagrees. “No one would dare boycott the Palestinians – not even the Americans,” he said. “Boycotting the Palestinians means isolating the American role they play in the Middle East,” he said.
Shaheen says the move boosted the morale of Palestinians, and the public image of President Abbas.
In the popular Al-Mahroum pastry shop in Ramallah, the dialogue was anything but sweet towards the Palestinian leadership and returning to the negotiating table with Israel.
Rushdi Salah Al-Deen, who runs a software company, says the only table the people care about anymore is the one where there is food. He told The Media Line that he thinks Abbas is working for his own interest and not that of the Palestinians and that the move to join the UN bodies was not toward the benefit of the Palestinians.
Huthaifa Husam read about in the newspaper. “There’s an Arabic expression,” he begins as he takes a bite from his Knafeh. “If you are trying the same thing and you’re expecting different results, you’re insane,” the web developer said.
He said he does not have a lot of faith in the international agencies.
With the division between Hamas and Fatah, the divide between the West Bank and Gaza, and the Arab States busy trying to sustain stability, he believes that “the opportunities to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are becoming less.”
Article written by Abdullah H. Erakat
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line