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U.N. Palestinian Vote: U.S., Israel Look To Contain Expected Political Damage

The United States and Israel are scrambling to contain the expected political fallout after failing to head off a vote in the United Nations that would officially upgrade the status of the Palestinians in the eyes of the world.

The 193-member U.N. General Assembly will vote today on a draft resolution that could upgrade the Palestinian Authority to a non-member observer state. It is virtually certain to pass, despite the opposition of the U.S. and a handful of other nations.

Senior American officials met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday to register American concerns, but to no avail, according to the New York Times.

“No one should be under any illusion that this resolution is going to produce the results that the Palestinians claim to seek, namely to have their own state living in peace next to Israel,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday, according to the Times. “We thought it was important to make our case one more time.”

The political conundrum has left President Barack Obama’s administration in the unenviable position of having to try to corral the violence in the Middle East without having made any significant progress toward Palestinian statehood.

A major concern now for the Americans is that the Palestinians might use their new status to try to join the International Criminal Court. That prospect particularly worries the Israelis, who fear that the Palestinians might press for an investigation of their practices in the occupied territories.

Another worry is that the Palestinians might use the vote to seek membership in specialized agencies of the United Nations, a move that could have consequences for the financing of the international organizations as well as the Palestinian Authority itself. The U.S. Congress cut off financing to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2011 after it accepted Palestine as a member. The United States is a major contributor to many of these agencies and plays an active role on their governing boards.

“To my knowledge, there’s no legislative impact that is triggered in the same way that there was with regard to UNESCO,” Nuland said earlier this week. “However, as you know, we also have money pending in the Congress for the Palestinian Authority, money that they need to support their regular endeavors and to support administration of the territories. So, obviously, if they take this step, it’s going to complicate the way the Congress looks at the Palestinians.”

Anticipating approval of the resolution, Western diplomats have pushed for a Palestinian commitment not to seek membership in the International Criminal Court and U.N. specialized agencies after the vote. Another step would be an affirmation by the Palestinians that the road to statehood was through the peace process. And a third could be a Palestinian commitment to open negotiations with the Israelis.

Such assurances do not appear to have been provided.

Israeli officials, aware that a harsh reaction would only isolate their country further, have begun playing down the significance of the draft resolution, and have toned down threats of countermeasures if it is approved as expected. Israel’s response will be “proportionate” to how the Palestinians act after the vote, said an Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, said there would be no automatic response from Israel. “We’re going to see where the Palestinians take this,” he said. “If they use it to continue confronting Israel and other U.N. bodies, there will be a firm response. If not, then there won’t.”

As the vote approached, a handful of European nations moved away from the American camp in light of the recent cease-fire agreement between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel over Gaza, which was widely viewed as a victory for Hamas over its rival, the Palestinian Authority.

France and Spain have said they will vote for the resolution. Britain has signaled it would be prepared to support the measure if the Palestinians provided assurances that they would not join the International Criminal Court, among other steps. Germany has said that it will vote against the resolution, as, of course, will Israel.

The vote is scheduled to take place on the anniversary of the General Assembly vote in 1947 to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Only the Security Council, in which the United States holds a veto, can approve formal, voting membership.

Some Middle East experts said the administration’s determination to vote against the Palestinian Authority’s motion was self-defeating, since it would accelerate the weakening of the authority as a voice for the Palestinian people and as a partner in peace negotiations.

A better strategy, said Robert Malley, the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group, would be for the United States and Israel simply to “shrug their shoulders,” recognizing it as a desperate bid for political legitimacy, not a threat to Israel or to the prospects for a peace agreement, the Times reported.

“He really, politically, has no choice,” Malley said of Mr. Abbas, during a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is less an act of confrontation than an act of survival.”

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