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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Israel threatens abrogation of Oslo accord in test balloon likely to burst

The signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords (REUTERS Photo)
The signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords (REUTERS Photo)
In a bid to deter Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from seeking United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood, Israel is considering the cancelling the Oslo accords that constitute the legal basis on which the Palestinian authority was established.

Israeli officials leaked the fact to the daily Haaretz that they might cancel the accords and possibly all other agreements signed with the Palestinians since 1993 to test the waters and see whether the threat will have any effect on Mr. Abbas’ decision.
Israel is virulently opposed to Mr. Abbas’ plan because recognition of Palestinian statehood by the UN General Assembly even if it is vetoed by the United States in the Security Council would enhance the Palestinians options, including allowing them to take Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes.

It would further give formal recognition to the boundaries of a future Palestinian state being those prior to Israel’s and 1967 conquest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and would put Palestine on par with states like Kosovo and Taiwan whose membership in the UN has been blocked in the Security Council by either Russia or China.

The threat to abrogate the Oslo accords as well as subsequent agreements is a double-edged sword for Israel despite its assertion that seeking recognition of statehood would constitute a Palestinian violation of those understandings.

The Oslo accords constituted the basis for Israel’s recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the return of exiled Palestinian leaders to territories occupied by Israel and the creation of the Palestine Authority. Recognition by the UN General Assembly of Palestinian statehood would effectively supersede those accords.

Moreover, Israel’s ability to reverse the consequences of those accords would be limited to making life difficult for the Palestinians by for example refusing to transfer taxes it collects on behalf of the authority. Such actions would likely contribute further to Israel’s international isolation despite the fact that Israel is vigorously supported by the United States in its opposition to UN recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Cancellation of agreements with the Palestinians would also undermine Israel’s argument that it is willing to revive stalled peace talks unconditionally if the Palestinians were only willing to come to the table. It would effectively return the peace talks to square one and put Israel in the position of having to accept part of the blame.

As a result, Israel’s trial balloon is unlikely to persuade the Palestinians to alter course.

Even so, UN recognition of Palestinian statehood would change little on the ground. Israel’s degree of control would remain and the burden for making real what amounts to a state on paper would still lie on Mr. Abbas’ shoulders. The risky difference however for the Palestinian leader would be that expectations would have been boosted while Mr. Abbas’s options to meet them would remain largely symbolic.

Filing a case against Israel in the International Criminal Court may have a feel good effect on Palestinians and be embarrassing for Israel but Palestine’s ability to chart its own future would not have come any closer. What Mr. Abbas needs is not symbolism but tangible results.

The question is whether his determination to go to the UN General Assembly offers him leverage, even if only to a limited degree. Mr. Abbas needs something tangible, Israel bitterly wants to avoid a fait accompli in the UN that would strengthen the Palestinian bargaining position and further isolate it.

Israel and Palestine have little more than a month to engineer an understanding that would serve both of their needs and lead to a revival of peace talks. They are unlikely to achieve that on their own.

It is an ideal moment for skilled diplomats and negotiators to prove their worth. Europe has in recent weeks been the driving force behind efforts to revive the stalled peace talks with the Obama administration taking a back seat. This is Europe’s chance to demonstrate its ability as a player on the world stage in its own right.

Granted, on paper the opportunity seems obvious. But as so often in the Middle East, reality is a lot more complex and doesn’t always lend itself to what seems a straightforward proposition. The odds are against preventing what could be for all parties a train wreck. However, nothing wagered, nothing gained.

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