Israelis warily brace for UN vote on Palestinians

September 19, 2011 - 11:40 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011. Netanyahu says the Palestinians' statehood bid at the United Nations this week will fail because it bypasses the Jewish state. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis are greeting the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership with a mix of fatalism and wariness, resigned to the fact that they face a serious diplomatic setback at the world body — but also increasingly angry and nervous about the country's deepening isolation.

The looming showdown at the United Nations, in which a broad majority of the world is expected to vote symbolically in favor of Palestinian independence, is deepening already strong divisions and tapping into a sense that 63 years after gaining independence, Israel is still searching for its place in the world.

"I think to do it this way is a bad idea," said Yehuda Algrassy, a 28-year-old security supervisor in Jerusalem. "It's just another symbolic step to denounce Israel a little bit more."

The Palestinians are turning to the U.N. in frustration after years of fruitless peace talks that were derailed by violence, Palestinian indecision and gaps that could never quite be bridged.

Most Israelis seem to realize that the likely outcome — a symbolic Palestinian victory at the General Assembly — won't change things on the ground. About 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured lands claimed by the Palestinians, and Israel retains firm control over both areas.

Yet there appears to be a widespread sense that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have misplayed his hand by not proposing a viable diplomatic plan of his own.

"I don't think Netanyahu is active enough," said Algrassy, who described himself as a member of the prime minister's Likud Party. "He doesn't really show what he means or his real opinion."

The most immediate fear is that mass demonstrations planned by the Palestinians could turn violent, despite Palestinian pledges to keep things peaceful.

"It might raise a new wave of violence for Palestinians, who will see that nothing has really changed," said Yorai Lieberman, a 36-year-old freelance cameraman.

But the deeper concern among many is that Israel is somehow being left behind, particularly at a time when the Middle East is going through major convulsions.

In recent weeks, Israel has suffered a series of high-profile diplomatic setbacks, watching relations deteriorate with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan — its closest and most important allies in the Muslim world.

These developments, combined with the looming U.N. vote, have fueled a perception that Netanyahu is helplessly watching as the region changes around him.

"Bibi (Netanyahu) himself didn't do enough to show he is serious about peace," said Jonathan Salomon, a 30-year-old financial analyst in Tel Aviv who said he voted for Netanyahu in 2009 elections. The Palestinians' U.N. bid "definitely won't help us," he added.

In a country that has valued presenting a united front to the world, it can be shocking to witness the increasingly corrosive antipathies between religious and secular, rich and poor, and especially between modernist liberals and nationalist settlers determined to cling to the biblical hilltops of the West Bank.

Columnist Avirama Golan wrote in Haaretz recently that Israel is already in an undeclared "culture war."

On Monday, opposition leader Tzipi Livni tapped into these sentiments, accusing Netanyahu of being held hostage to a coalition dominated by hard-line nationalists.

She accused Netanyahu of "sitting passively" and said the government must repair its regional relations. The world "doesn't believe the prime minister of Israel. We are paying the price," said Livni, a former foreign minister.

Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a victim of sorts, claiming the United Nations is reflexively hostile to Israel and that the Palestinians are the intransigent party.

Addressing his Cabinet this week, Netanyahu showed no signs of bending. "The truth is that Israel wants peace, and the truth is that the Palestinians are doing everything to torpedo direct peace negotiations," he said.

Talks have been frozen for a year over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

The Palestinians plan to ask the world to recognize a state based on the pre-1967 lines.

They plan to first ask the Security Council — the powerful 15-member body that must approve a statehood request. With the U.S. vowing to veto the measure, the Palestinians are then expected to seek an upgraded observer status — as a "nonmember state" — in the larger General Assembly, where victory is virtually guaranteed.

Although the status is largely symbolic, an overwhelming vote in favor might aid the Palestinians in applying for membership in various global organizations such as the International Criminal Court where they can continually challenge Israel.

Elyakim Haetzni, a leading pro-settlement figure, argued that previous Israeli governments have offered the Palestinians generous peace terms that were rebuffed, or even met with violence. "Where do we get the ignorance, hypocrisy, demagoguery, evil and self-loathing?" he write in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Some Netanyahu supporters, though, believe he must come up with a serious alternative to blunt the international criticism.

Israel Today, a staunchly pro-Netanyahu daily, urged him in a front-page column to consider a new settlement freeze.

"At the current juncture, the question is not to what degree is Israel's position justified but how important is it to prove that it is not the reason for the rift in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," wrote columnist Dan Margalit.

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Associated Press writers Daniella Cheslow and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.