Sometimes realpolitik diplomacy, based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations, requires that difficult choices be made. This appears to have been the case when a Palestinian delegation, and their UAE colleagues, shifted their focus from a UN Security Council resolution, which would have risked a US veto, to a US-supported presidential statement by the council that contained basically the same text. That thinking continues to guide the Ramallah-based leadership as it participates in the Aqaba security summit on Sunday along with Jordan, Egypt, the US, and Israel.
While a UN Security Council resolution is technically legally binding, the Palestinian experience of Israel actually being bound by such resolutions is very low.
In January 2020, the Security Council approved Resolution 2334, which declared all Israeli settlements to be illegal. It passed after President Barack Obama allowed his ambassador to the UN in New York, Samantha Power, to abstain from voting.
The resolution stated that Israel’s settlement activity constitutes a “flagrant violation” of international law and has “no legal validity.” It demanded that Israel halt all such activity and fulfill its obligations as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Despite the strong language in that binding resolution, successive Israeli governments have ignored it. In fact, on Feb. 13 the Israeli Security Cabinet approved the legalization of nine unauthorized West Bank settlements. The Civil Administration Higher Planning Committee, run by the Israeli army, has also approved 10,000 new settler housing units.
Neither a resolution nor a statement from the Security Council is likely to halt Israeli settlement activities undertaken by a weak Israeli government that is beholden to radical settlers. Already the killing of 11 Palestinians, including a number of elderly men in Nablus on Thursday, has shown the ineffectiveness of trusting the US or Israel. But for the Abbas administration which is unable to challenge the Israelis, the US track continues to be the only viable one.
The US and the entire international community consider all settlements built in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to be illegal.
The resolution that the UN Security Council had been expected to consider on Feb. 20, submitted by Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s ambassador to the UN, included text condemning the latest decisions by Israeli authorities and demanding that they cease all settlement activities. But as in the 2020 resolution, no punitive measures were included. Even so, Washington was expected to veto the resolution, reportedly because of its strong language.
Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, and Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the Senate, along with other Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, had publicly urged the Biden administration not to allow the resolution, which they described as anti-Israeli, to pass.
The decision by Palestinians to accept a presidential statement by the Security Council reflects a political judgment call. Riyad Mansour, the permanent representative of the state of Palestine, believes that the statement, which also required Washington’s approval, will send the same message as a resolution but would not risk a US veto, as has happened in the past. “The decision will further isolate Israel,” Mansour told Arab News.
Many Palestinians argue, however, that it represents capitulation to the US and Israel and an unnecessary compromise. But since politics is the art of the possible, Ramallah’s compromise had other elements to it.
According to press reports, the decision was only taken after the US offered a White House invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (apparently before one has been offered to new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), along with movement on the issue of the US Consulate in Jerusalem.
US pressure is also said to have produced Israeli promises to suspend settlement activities and the demolition of Palestinian homes for months, and to allow the transfer of tax money collected by Israel on behalf of Palestinians.
To some this represents an acceptance of the realpolitik on the part of the Palestinian leadership.
While it remains to be seen whether the new Israeli administration, which is shamelessly controlled by radical settlers, will honor the commitments it has made, Palestinians are counting on Washington to test the recently elected Netanyahu.
The thinking among the Palestinian leadership is that its compromise over the Security Council statement is a win-win situation. If the Israeli government honors its pledges to the US, then the achievement will be registered. If it fails to honor them, as expected, it will widen its rift with Washington which, in the long run, could serve the Palestinian cause.
Israel said that some new settlements had already been approved but that there would be no further settlement announcements in the coming months.
The UAE therefore agreed to withdraw its resolution, after the Palestinians also agreed to this based on many of the above-mentioned commitments from Washington.
The decision by the UAE to cancel a vote on a Security Council resolution calling on Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories” — drafted in close cooperation with the Palestinian delegation — was not taken lightly.
Two important side accomplishments were achieved by the Palestinians. Firstly, the level of cooperation with UAE officials was very high and the Palestinian delegation publicly praised their Emirati counterparts for coordinating with them in making all their decisions. This rapprochement will help Palestinians in the coming days and ease some of the difficulties faced in recent years.
Secondly, the presidential statement included terms designed to criticize Israeli hate speech against Palestinian Jerusalemites.
“The Council noted with deep concern instances of discrimination, intolerance and hate speech motivated by racism or directed against persons belonging to religious communities — in particular cases motivated by Islamophobia, antisemitism or Christianophobia,” the statement noted.
This is perhaps the first time ever that the terms “Christianophobia” and “Islamophobia” have been spoken together by the Security Council presidency.
There is no doubt that the decision to withdraw the resolution came at a time when Palestinians have few diplomatic cards to play. While it comes from a position of weakness rather than strength, it represents a Palestinian leadership that is well aware of its own lack of influence in light of disunity in the Arab world and the recent formation of a dangerous Israeli government. At the same time, the leadership looks to a future in which Israel might be further isolated and weakened when, as seems most likely, it fails to honor its promises to Washington.
Overall, the political compromise by Ramallah might have improved Palestinian relations with Washington but it comes at the cost of a further deterioration in the popularity of the 87-year-old Palestinian president and the entire Palestinian leadership.