Rejecting Obama’s Request, Abbas Presses Ahead With U.N. ‘Palestine’ Application

By Patrick Goodenough | November 12, 2012 | 5:12 AM EST

Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas turned down President Obama’s request Sunday that he not pursue his bid for upgraded status at the United Nations, according to a P.A. spokesman. (AP Photo)

( – Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas rejected a direct appeal by President Obama on Sunday night to drop his plan to seek upgraded status for “Palestine” at the United Nations within days, an Abbas spokesman said.

Nabil Abu Rdeinah told news agencies Abbas had turned down Obama’s request during a lengthy telephone conversation. The White House did not release any statement on the reported phone call.

Israel and the U.S. say the U.N. route is an attempt by bypass a negotiated settlement as agreed to in numerous bilateral agreements since the early 1990s, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this month repeated a call for an immediate resumption of talks.

Israel is concerned that enhanced U.N. status for would see the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) make good on pledges to bring cases against Israel before the International Criminal Court.

Rdeinah said Abbas had explained he was pushing ahead with the U.N. plan because of the stalemate in peace talks and Israeli construction work in areas the Palestinians want for a future state.

The P.A. leader was to attend an Arab League meeting Monday in Cairo, where a date for the U.N. bid was to be decided. A senior Arab League official said last week the vote could come as early as Thursday, November 15; according to the current U.N. agenda, the Palestinian issue is set down for two weeks later, November 29.

Having failed last year in an attempt to have the 15-member U.N. Security Council support his bid for recognition, Abbas set his sights on the 193-member General Assembly, and a request to upgrade the status of “Palestine” from its current one of “observer entity” to that of “observer state.”

Unlike the situation in the Security Council, no country in the General Assembly has veto power and a majority of its members are developing nations overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian cause. A simple majority is enough to pass a resolution.

According to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, a draft text circulated in New York last week would “accord to Palestine Observer State status in the United Nations system, without prejudice to the acquired rights, privileges and role of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative of the Palestinian people.”

The PLO, the organization formed by Yasser Arafat in 1964 and now headed by Abbas, has been recognized by the General Assembly as the official representative of the Palestinian people since 1974, and has been able to participate in meetings as an observer. After a 1988 resolution, the U.N. began referring to the PLO observer as “Palestine.”

Several hours before his reported phone conversation with Obama, Abbas addressed a function in Ramallah marking the eighth anniversary of Arafat’s death, and reiterated his determination to go ahead with the U.N. bid “even though they say we should not.”

“Within two days, the Arab League will set exactly what date this month the request will be made,” he said.

“Your security is in peace with the Palestinians,” the official P.A. news agency Wafa quoted Abbas as saying in comments directed to Israelis “We are staying in our land. Freeze the settlement activities that will only kill the two-state solution.”

Abbas also told the event he was committed to ending the divisions between his Fatah faction and Hamas – the Islamist group controlling the Gaza Strip since 2007 – and to holding free presidential elections.

Abbas’ four-year mandate expired in January 2009, although his tenure was extended by decree for a year beyond that. The scheduled Jan. 2010 presidential election was then postponed indefinitely, also by Abbas’ decree. Almost three years later, Abbas remains – in the West Bank at least – “president of the State of Palestine.”

At the weekend, Israel’s finance minister Yuval Steinitz warned that if the P.A. goes ahead with the move in New York Israel would withhold tax revenues on imported goods that it collects on the P.A.’s behalf.

Steinitz’ P.A. counterpart, Jawad al-Naji, told Ma’an that the P.A. was working with “various institutions” in a bid to limit the impact of any sanctions resulting from the U.N. application.

Various U.S. laws also have implications for any Palestinian bid to upgrade its U.N. status. Among them:

The 2006 Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act makes U.S. assistance to the P.A. conditional on its compliance with obligations to abide by existing agreements.

Requirements in Department of State appropriations legislation passed last December prohibit the transfer of “economic support funds” (ESF) to the P.A. should the Palestinians obtain “the same standing as member states or full membership as a state in the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof outside and agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Legislation dating back to 1987 allows a periodic waiver on a ban on the PLO maintaining an office in the U.S. – but conditional on the Palestinians not having obtained that U.N. standing.

The PLO has had a mission office in Washington since 1994, and in mid-2010 the Obama administration allowed it to begin flying the Palestinian flag there and to change its name to PLO Delegation to the United States.

U.S. aid to the P.A. in fiscal year 2012 was $513 million, including $400 million in ESF and $113 million for training and equipping its security forces.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow