How to respond

How to respond

The Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek an observer nation status at the United Nations General Assembly was clearly a setback for peace. It violates interim agreements by seeking unilateral recognition instead of achieving it through direct negotiations. And it damages trust between the two peoples.

But it played right into the P.A.’s hand by putting diplomatic clout behind its strategy of getting as much of its demands met as possible while never sitting down at a negotiating table.

And as the P.A. has made clear since the days of Yasser Arafat, achieving its goals without negotiating — and compromising — is really what it prefers.

For instance, the resolution passed last week “reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their State of Palestine on the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.” That’s a sweeping declaration that doesn’t even consider the West Bank Jewish communities that have existed for decades, let alone the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

But the resolution is a fait accompli, the question for Israel became, how to respond.   

The Netanyahu government answered that question the day after passage, announcing it would withhold $100 million in monthly tax revenue to the P.A., authorizing 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and expediting plans for thousands more dwellings near the capital and the West Bank community of Ma’ale Adumin.

That’s one way of responding, though we think it was premature.  

The best response at this time is no response — at least, not beyond the diplomatic realm. Let Israel’s ambassadors and spokespersons hit the airwaves, the blogs and the op-ed pages to fight this battle; use the facts to show why this harms trust in P.A. accountability; keep the proverbial ball in President Mahmoud Abbas’ court. After all, he did say in his address to the General Assembly last week — amid all his other harsh rhetoric — that a vote to upgrade P.A. status would be a “down payment on peace.” OK, let him prove it. Let him offer to sit down and talk without preconditions. The vote could even provide him some political cover to move forward with talks.

That’s not likely to happen. With last week’s vote, Abbas became emboldened, shown yet again he can get what he wants without talking to Israel. He also won back some of the limelight Hamas took away last month during its eight-day war with Israel.

But by moving so quickly to withhold the tax transfers and green lighting housing construction in sensitive areas, Israel is the one taking international criticism.

Remember, Abbas hasn’t done anything yet with his new observer state status. He could seek membership in the International Criminal Court at the Hague, potentially to push for criminal charges against Israeli leaders, but the ICC declined to investigate war crimes following the 2008 Cast Lead operation, and there’s no reason to believe Abbas would have better luck.    

Better to wait and see what Abbas does with his new status — to build a case for taking stronger action. Whether he uses it to make trouble or seek peace, the next move is his to make, not ours.