Talks of Statehood at UN as PA's Future is Questioned
As the world convenes at the UN and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas once again calls for statehood, the future of the current Palestinian governing apparatus is uncertain in the wake of protests and a deepening financial crisis.
After last year’s failed attempt at becoming a full member of the UN by going through the Security Council, Abbas announced he would submit an application for non-member state observer status to the General Assembly. This requires a simple majority of the 193 UN General Assembly members and is a near certainty since the PLO counts 130 nations that already recognize Palestine as a state. This could be a small victory for Abbas as the economic crisis facing the Palestinian Authority is causing more cracks to appear in the façade of its already limited self-governance that began in 1994 after the Oslo Accords.
Amidst a wave of optimism, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in the White House Rose Garden in September 1993. In the agreement, Israel committed itself to withdrawing from portions of the West Bank and Gaza and allowing a Palestinian government in its place. The arrangement was intended to be temporary while the parties negotiated a permanent settlement. Israel first gave the newly formed Palestinian Authority control of Jericho and the Gaza Strip (excluding Israeli settlements) in May 1994 and by January 1997 all major Palestinian cities were in PA control. Today, the PA only fully functions in parts of the West Bank and it governs 55 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank but only 18 percent of the land. Israel is in complete control of 60 percent.
The Oslo process was a series of agreements signed over several years. One of them is the Paris Protocol that regulates the economic relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The protocol says that the Palestinian Authority must match Israel’s price of gasoline and its value added tax (VAT). When Israel raised its VAT by one percent recently, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad raised it in the West Bank as well. This set off scores of demonstrations by Palestinians already unhappy with the high cost of living.
The PA is now facing a financial crisis that has already constrained its ability to pay wages to its large workforce. The World Bank report released on September 19 gives its take on the problem. Simply put, international donors are giving less than promised and the PA is still spending and running up a large deficit. One major expense is the salaries for public sector workers. The government employs 14 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and 54 percent of its budget goes to paying their wages. Despite the financial problems, the PA continues to hire, most notably adding 484 employees to the security sector in the first six months of 2012.
The World Bank urges the PA to institute a hiring freeze as a short-term measure and to restructure the civil service sector. With 17 percent of West Bank Palestinians unemployed including 26 percent of youth (ages 15-29), the employment provided by the PA is important politically and socially. The World Bank acknowledges that, “cutting some of its basic spending such as wages, which could have severe social impacts.”
The report also mentions the role it believes Israel plays in the current economic situation. They highlight the significance of Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control. This area holds most of the land for agriculture and natural resources that could create an “economic foundation for growth in important sectors of the economy.” The country director for the West Bank and Gaza urged the international community to increase aid to the PA but underscores the economic impact of the Israeli occupation and control of the land. She states that "even with this financial support, sustainable economic growth cannot be achieved without a removal of the barriers preventing private sector development, particularly in Area C.” She also commented that, “The most important message of this report is that economic cohesion is not achievable when the areas in which people have to operate and go about their business are crisscrossed by impediments.”
Israeli leaders told a conference of donor countries on September 21 that it was taking steps to help ease the financial crisis. They cited the regular transfer of taxes collected on behalf of the PA to help pay Palestinian salaries, the approval of 14 USAID projects in Area C, an increase in work permits for Palestinians in the West Bank to work within the Green Line and the easing of movement restrictions within the West Bank. Ha’aretz also reports that Israel is approaching European countries to up their financial aid to compensate for $300 million pledged by Arab countries that have not yet paid.
Many attribute the high prices and poor economy to the Oslo agreement and some are calling for the PA to abandon it. Mustafa Barghouti, former candidate for president says, “People are no longer able to tolerate a situation in which they are under occupation but are also forced to pay for the cost of the occupation. Israel controls more than 60 per cent of the land [in the West Bank], more than 90 per cent of the water resources and it obliges the Palestinians to pay the same prices as in Israel, while GDP per head in Israel is 25 times as high as in Palestine.”
Between 1967 and the Oslo agreements, Israel was in charge of all civil services in the West Bank and Gaza including infrastructure, electricity and water, sustained health services, education, transportation, public order, policing and the courts. Now, the PA has that responsibility and it is footing the bill, largely thanks to international donors. Some argue that the PA is making the occupation sustainable for Israel but supporters of the PA maintain that it is building institutions that will pave the way to financial independence and preparing for eventual statehood.
Many Palestinians and their supporters see a host of other issues with the agreement. While Oslo was intended to be temporary, it has given Israel almost two decades to expand settlements in the West Bank. Despite a clause that states, “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations,” settlement growth has continued and now takes up over 42 percent of the West Bank according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
Given the magnitude of these issues, the announcement that Mahmoud Abbas will submit a bid to the General Assembly for membership has come with little fanfare. An editorial in a UAE paper The National provides one explanation,
Today's speech at the UN will give Mr. Abbas the chance to put the Palestinian statehood issue back on the international agenda. But with Mr. Abbas's Fatah party in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza, no nearer to reconciliation and the much-mooted elections nowhere in sight, the Palestinian struggle for freedom languishes…A UN statehood bid may yet shore up domestic support for Mr. Abbas. But symbolic victories will not end Palestinian suffering. After two decades of Oslo, true statehood will only come from a change in tactics.
PLO officials have reavealed that Abbas brought up the possibility of cancelling the accords earlier this month but no decision was made. Abbas is now focused on going ahead with the proposal in the General Assembly for statehood. To avoid drawing the ire of the United States, the Palestinian representatives are not pushing for an immediate vote and it will likely be postponed until after November. Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force for Palestine told Business Week, “The PA cannot afford another fight with their donor.”
All eyes were on the General Assembly podium on Thursday as President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke hours apart. Abbas gave an impassioned speech about Palestinian suffering under Israel and their desire for peace while Netanyahu focused predominantly on Iran.
Here are some excerpts:
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas:
Despite our real feelings of anger, we, in the name of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, reaffirm, without hesitation, that we as committed to peace and international legitimacy and its covenants and its resolutions as we are adherent to our inalienable national rights and aspirations, and we reaffirm that we are committed to non-violence and reject terrorism in all its forms, particularly State terrorism.
Despite our feelings of disappointment and loss of hope, we continue to sincerely extend our hands to the Israeli people to make peace. We realize that ultimately the two peoples must live and coexist, each in their respective State, in the Holy Land. Further, we realize that progress towards making peace is through negotiations between the PLO and Israel. [See full text]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
President Abbas just spoke here. I say to him and I say to you: We won't solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the UN. That's not the way to solve it. We won't solve our conflict with unilateral declarations of statehood.
We have to sit together, negotiate together, and reach a mutual compromise, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the one and only Jewish State.
Israel wants to see a Middle East of progress and peace. We want to see the three great religions that sprang forth from our region – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – coexist in peace and in mutual respect. [See full text]
While the rhetoric was standard, one unscripted moment made headlines. In a meeting with American Jewish leaders, Abbas expressed a willingness to restart talks after Harvard Law Professor Allen Dershowitz presented Abbas with a plan he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in June. Dershowitz says the Palestinian leader looked at the paper, circled the portion calling for a conditional settlment freeze, added his signature and the date and returned it. The Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington says it takes issue with some accounts of the meeting but did not provide additional comments. Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman and current president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which hosted the event, told Huffington Post that Abbas indicated in the meeting that he was "genuinely interested in finding a formula to get back to negotiations."
U.S. President Obama briefly mentioned the conflict in his speech but he kept the language noncontroversial to avoid criticism in the weeks leading up to the election.
United States President Barack Obama:
Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on a prospect of peace. Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict, those who reject the right of Israel to exist. The road is hard, but the destination is clear -- a secure, Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine. Understanding that such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties, America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey. [See full text]
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Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.