Pittsburgh Jewish leaders weigh in on U.N. vote

Pittsburgh Jewish leaders weigh in on U.N. vote

Local Jewish leaders reacted with concern, and, in some cases, hope, to the Nov. 29 United Nations’ vote granting Palestine observer state status in the General Assembly.

While the initial analysis from Jewish and non-Jewish observers alike said the designation was largely symbolic, the resolution itself, which not surprisingly passed the General Assembly by a 138-9 vote, with 41 abstentions, could be problematic for Israel in future peace talks in that it designates all of the West Bank as a future Palestinian state without regard to Jewish communities already there, or Israel’s security.

The resolution “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.”   

Gregg Roman, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, said the vote “will do nothing to advance a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

He called the unilateral move “a violation of existing and agreed upon international frameworks for negotiations and opens up a wide array of possibilities which could serve to attack Israel’s legitimacy through U.N. organs.”

The U.N. vote also made the Palestinians eligible for membership in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, raising concerns that P.A. officials may use such a future membership to seek charges against Israeli leaders for alleged war crimes.

ICC prosecutors issued a vague statement following the vote, saying they would “consider the legal implications of this resolution.”  The ICC is not an arm of the United Nations.

Still, there is cause for concern.

“The legal ramifications of this move are real,” Deborah Fidel, director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, said in a written statement. “The ICC can only preside over cases concerning crimes that were committed in, or by, a state that has consented to the Court’s jurisdiction. Because Israel had not consented to the Court’s jurisdiction, the Palestinians were unable to bring a case prior to the vote.  Now that the U.N. has recognized Palestine, they can do so, since the party bringing the charges is a state.

“The question is,” Fidel continued, “will this move the needle closer to a peace deal?  No. I think this is just another sign that we need the administration to refocus on this issue and bring the two sides to the table to negotiate their way to a just and lasting peace.”

Nancy Bernstein, co chair of J Street Pittsburgh, said the vote posed an opportunity for peace, provided both sides took advantage of it.

“Israel and the United States can now either promote negotiations towards a two-state solution or condemn the move as an obstacle to peace,” she said in a written statement. “Abbas can use this opportunity to pursue direct negotiations in good faith before resorting to options he may now have to bring legal action against Israel through the International Criminal Court.”

She continued, “As [J Street Executive Director] Jeremy Ben Ami recently said, instead of punishing the P.A. for turning to the U.N., our energies should be focused on a threat far greater to Israel’s long-term security and character — and that is the possible failure to achieve a two-state solution before it is too late.”

She too urged President Obama to take a proactive role in peace talks.

“Obama and the international community must take the lead. Netanyahu and Abbas too must step up to the plate to end 45 years of occupation and the prospect of never ending war.  This is their moment. It won’t be easy but it’s what real leadership is all about.”

Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District, said the vote was more about P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ political survival.

“Abbas used a lifeline with the U.N. for his political survival, Pavilack said. “Without the vote he was becoming irrelevant. Mostly what it does is give him some creditability with his people. On a positive side, it may slow down Hamas’ further rise to power in Judea and Samara.

“The downside is it may cause aggravation for Israel in international courts,” Pavilack continued, echoing Fidel’s concern and that of other Jewish leaders. “The reality is Hamas and the Palestinian Authority don’t want to build anything.

“Judea and Samara had one of the fastest growing economies in the world when the Oslo accords were signed; 250 new Arab towns popped up in Judea and Samara since 1967. Why? They followed the Jews. It simply made good economic sense. Because of Israeli health care, infrastructure, etc., Arab life expectancies went up and the death rate for infants went down. There are more Arab cities in Judea and Samara with running water than any Arab country in the Middle East. Pavilack noted on Friday. “Perhaps the U.N. vote may change one thing,” he added. The Palestinian Authority owes Israel tens of millions of dollars for electric and other services. Perhaps Israel repays itself with taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority before turning over funds to the P.A. as it did last week.”

That’s precisely what happened.

In a quick response to the vote, Israel announced it would withhold more than $100 million in tax revenue to the P.A. this month, using it to pay down its debt to Israel’s electric company.

Israel also announced it would proceed with 3,000 new settler homes in and around Jerusalem and gave preliminary approval to construction in the politically sensitive E1 zone near the Jewish community Male Adumin.

Bernstein criticized the E1 decision saying it would “bisect the West Bank, preventing any contiguity for a Palestinian State.” The moves also were greeted with international criticism from the United States and European nations, some of whom summoned their Israeli ambassadors to register their complaints.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dug in his heels this week, resisting pressure to reverse the decisions. His staff released a statement saying Israel would continue to stand by its “vital interests” in the region.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)


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