Israel braces for Palestinian statehood bid at United Nations

August 31, 2011

Israel is preparing security forces as well as diplomatic and legal responses for a planned Palestinian bid this month for admission as a state to the United Nations, but officials say they do not expect a major eruption of unrest as a result of the move.

Despite intensive Israeli diplomatic efforts to head off U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, a senior official involved in shaping the Israeli response said the government is resigned to the General Assembly endorsing the move later this month.

“We’re aware that we have very little ability to prevent it, because it’s the U.N., so we have to learn to live with it,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss the subject freely.

He described the United Nations as a body with an automatic anti-Israeli majority.

The official said Israel was preparing for fallout from the U.N. vote on three fronts: in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and possibly on Israel’s borders, in the diplomatic arena and in international forums.

On the ground, Israeli military and police forces are preparing for what the official called a “worst-case scenario,” in which masses of Palestinians march on Israeli checkpoints and West Bank settlements, and possibly on the country’s borders. Palestinians used such tactics in May, on the anniversary of Israel’s establishment, and in June, to mark the anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, drawing deadly Israeli gunfire.

Security officials said that Israeli police and army forces have stocked up on nonlethal crowd-control equipment and carried out drills to prepare for mass protests, and that border units have been readied for possible marches to Israel’s frontiers. The army has trained rapid-response teams at Israeli settlements on how to deal with approaching Palestinian crowds.

Despite the preparations, the official assessment is that the U.N. vote will not trigger a major eruption of Palestinian unrest. Part of that expectation stems from plans by the Palestinian Authority to limit celebrations to the West Bank areas it controls and prevent confrontations with Israeli forces and settlers, which could turn violent.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called for peaceful demonstrations, and he has ruled out a third intifada, or uprising, against Israel.

In a recent interview with Israeli Army Radio, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said his “assessment and hope” was that the U.N. vote would pass quietly. Using similar language, the senior official who briefed reporters said he was “doubtful” that the extreme scenarios prepared for by the military would materialize.

The official said he did not think that the U.N. vote would alter Israel’s relations with other nations, but he cautioned that recognition of statehood would provide a strong basis for Palestinian legal action against Israel in international tribunals and other bodies. He said Israeli legal officials were preparing for such challenges.

In an op-ed article in the New York Times in May, Abbas wrote that U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state would “pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”

The official who briefed reporters asserted that the Palestinians appear intent on avoiding negotiations and taking their case to the United Nations, “where it doesn’t cost them anything” because of the assured majority in their favor. Palestinian officials have said that their U.N. bid is a last resort as efforts to negotiate with the Israeli government prove fruitless and Israel continues to expand settlements on land they seek for a state.

U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 boundaries with the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be a “strategic mistake,” the official said, because it would entrench both the Palestinians and Israel in unbridgeable positions. Prospects for negotiations, he said, would be set back “many years.”

Washington also has opposed the Palestinian U.N. initiative, calling it a unilateral attempt to determine the outcome of a conflict that should be resolved through negotiations.

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