Israel Plays Down Importance of U.N. Bid by Palestinians

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JERUSALEM -- With Western support swelling in favor of a Palestinian bid for enhanced status at the United Nations, Israel engaged in damage control on Wednesday, a day before the vote.

Israeli officials began to play down the significance of a draft resolution that calls for the upgrading of the Palestinian status to nonmember observer state from observer, a change that is also opposed by the United States but that is virtually certain to pass. Additionally, Israel has toned down its threats of countermeasures after the vote, aware that a harsh reaction would only isolate it further.

"The United Nations General Assembly will pass a one-sided anti-Israel resolution that should come as a surprise to nobody, and certainly not to anyone in Israel," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government. "We always said that the reality was that the Palestinians have an automatic majority in the General Assembly."

While Mr. Regev acknowledged "a certain amount of disappointment" over the decision of some friendly European countries to support the Palestinians or to abstain from the vote, he said: "Ultimately, what we will see at the United Nations is diplomatic theater. It will in no way affect the realities on the ground."

Israel's response, he said, will be "proportionate" to how the Palestinians act after the vote.

At first, Israel had hoped to deter the Palestinians from pursuing the vote. Officials warned that such a step could result in Israeli responses as drastic as the cancellation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords or the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

When that effort failed, Israel focused on ensuring what it called a "moral majority" in the vote, meaning that even if a majority of nations voted in favor of the Palestinian bid, the major world powers and most European countries would not.

But France announced Tuesday that it would support the Palestinian bid. Other European nations, including Switzerland, Denmark and Norway, have followed.

Britain, which had previously lobbied along with the United States to try to get the Palestinians to at least postpone their maneuver, said it would consider voting for the resolution pending certain amendments and public assurances, including a clear commitment from the Palestinians that they would return immediately to negotiations with Israel without preconditions and that they would not pursue Israel for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Otherwise, Britain says, it will abstain.

Germany has said it will not vote for the resolution, but it has not yet specified if it will vote against it.

Israelis and the Palestinians agree on one thing: support for the Palestinian bid grew as a result of the recent fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the coastal enclave. That conflict elevated the stature of Hamas among Palestinians at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, which holds sway in parts of the West Bank.

But the seeming setback for Mr. Abbas at home might help him at the United Nations. "Before the military confrontation there were several European countries willing to oppose the resolution," said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union. The new support, he said, is meant "to give Abbas a moral victory over Hamas in the contest between violence and diplomacy. I would not rush to conclude that it is an anti-Israeli stand."

Husam Zomlot, a Palestinian official who has been active in lobbying in Europe, said more countries had decided "to support the diplomatic horizon and not the military-security approach that they see leads nowhere."

Israel has argued that the Palestinian move is a unilateral action that violates peace accords, and that a vote for the resolution -- which, according to the draft, "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" -- will make it harder to negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But looking at a resounding defeat in the General Assembly, Israeli representatives are increasingly describing the bid for enhanced status as meaningless.

"Other than symbolic value for the Palestinians," said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, "it may give them some procedural advantages, such as access within the United Nations system to some things, but that's it. It does not change the status of the territory."

Mr. Palmor added that there would be no automatic response from Israel. "We are going to see where the Palestinians take this," he said. "If they use it to continue confronting Israel in other U.N. bodies, there will be a firm response. If not, then there won't."

In a statement on Wednesday, Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, urged Israeli restraint.

"Whatever happens at the General Assembly," he said, "we call on Israel to avoid reacting in a way that damages the peace process or Israel's international standing. We would not support a strong reaction which undermined the peace process by sidelining President Abbas or risked the collapse of the Palestinian Authority."

Mr. Palmor said Israel would adhere to its agreements with the Palestinians and would "work by the book." That, he said, means that Israel will take only those countermeasures, possibly in the financial realm, that will not violate any signed accords.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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