Jodi Rudoren
The New York Times
September 20, 2012 - 12:00am

JERICHO, West Bank — One year after the Palestinians’ high-profile failure to win United Nations membership through the Security Council, they are returning to the General Assembly next week seeking largely symbolic “nonmember state” status, with a subdued campaign that many analysts see as a long-shot effort to win back the waning attention of the world.

The delegation heading to New York this weekend is half the size of last year’s. And there are no concerts or street parties planned this time around President Mahmoud Abbas’s Sept. 27 speech to the General Assembly; instead, it comes after days of unrest across the West Bank focused more on the Palestinian Authority than its Israeli occupier.

It has been a year without peace talks. And it has been a year in which economic conditions for Palestinians have deteriorated, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have expanded, and promised reconciliation between Mr. Abbas’s Fatah faction and the more militant Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip has failed to materialize.

At the same time, Mr. Abbas’s approval ratings have plummeted, to 46 percent this month from 67 percent in September 2011, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, while the revolutions across the Arab world and the Iranian nuclear program have distracted the international community from the Palestinian struggle.

“A lost year” is how Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian commissioner of international relations, put it in an interview this week. “We have wasted a whole year, and that waste cost us a lot in the circumstances of our people, in the support of our people. The frustration is unequaled. This stalemate, this closed door, this impasse cannot stay.”

While there is broad support for the United Nations bid among Palestinian leaders and on the street, there are also growing calls for a far more drastic move: abandoning the Oslo agreements that have governed Palestinian-Israeli relations for nearly two decades, or dissolving the Palestinian Authority. After two evenings of sometimes-heated meetings this week, according to participants, Mr. Abbas told the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization that within 10 days of his return from New York he wanted a decision either to walk away from Oslo or to hold national elections and replace him.

“Twenty years of Oslo and 20 years of a Palestinian Authority and 20 years of all the promises ended in fiasco,” said Zakaria al-Qaq, a professor of national security at Al Quds University. “They are trying to scare the Israelis, because the Israelis consider Oslo as a genius political achievement. They want to scare the Americans and the Europeans.”

But experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see this more as posturing than serious policy making, and they warn that a vacuum could provide opportunity for extremists. “Supposing now you scrap Oslo — then what?” Tony Blair, the representative of the so-called quartet — the Middle East peacemaking group made up of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — asked in an interview on Wednesday. “If you burn the house down on the basis that somebody’s going to have to build you something new, you might just be left with a burned house.”

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 and 1995, were intended as a five-year interim arrangement establishing the Palestinian Authority to begin state-building while negotiations continued toward a final-status solution. They outline protocols for security and economic cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and divide the West Bank into distinct areas with varying levels of Israeli control and Palestinian responsibility.

There have been occasional calls for abandoning Oslo for a decade, said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiations unit. Lately, the chorus has grown, with Palestinian officials complaining that Israel routinely violates provisions of the agreements. In April, Yossi Beilin, one of the Israeli architects of the accords, wrote an open letter to Mr. Abbas in the magazine Foreign Policy headlined, “End This Farce.”

“It’s like keeping someone in kindergarten for 19 years and then blaming the kindergarten for them not being successful,” Mr. Beilin said this week. “They need something dramatic. If they say by the 1st of December, if nothing good happens to us, if there are no serious negotiations, you don’t freeze settlements, whatever, we are going to give up on it — this will put the world in a different situation, everyone will rush to prevent it.”

But he and others said they doubted the Palestinian leadership would actually take such a step. “The threat of canceling Oslo is always a reactionary threat, just the same way that Abbas is always threatening to quit,” Ms. Buttu said.

For now, there is the General Assembly. While some in Jerusalem and Washington have condemned the effort as thwarting the peace process, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, described it Thursday as a last-ditch effort to “preserve the two-state solution.”

“We have never said that our rights of self-determination are subject to negotiation,” Mr. Erekat told journalists at his headquarters here in Jericho before leaving for Turkey en route to New York. “We are declaring a state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, to live side by side with Israel in peace and security. I don’t see why people who stand for the two-state solution would not join us.”

Appeasing the Americans, the Palestinians do not plan to press for a vote before the Nov. 6 presidential election. Instead, they will only begin drafting the resolution. Mr. Erekat said they expected to win the votes of between 150 and 170 of the General Assembly’s 193 members.

Nonmember state status would give the Palestinians access to United Nations’ institutions like the International Criminal Court, and, Mr. Erekat said, make clear that they are living under occupation, not in what Israelis sometimes call “disputed territory.”

“The day after, life will not be the same,” he said. “Yes, occupation will continue, settlements will continue, the crimes of settlers may continue. But there will be consequences.”

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, denounced the General Assembly strategy as “a violation of their fundamental commitment,” and placed blame for the stagnated peace process on Mr. Abbas’s refusal to return to the table while the settlement enterprise marches on.

“We are willing for Palestinian statehood in the framework of peace and reconciliation,” Mr. Regev said. “If Palestinians want a state merely as a superior vehicle to continue a political, military, economic and psychological struggle with Israel, that’s not what we have in mind.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017