Passport

Israeli ambassador seeks 'moral minority' at U.N.

The first stop in a tour of Ron Prosor's gallery of memories is not the portraits of his three children and wife hanging from his office wall, or the pictures of Israel's new U.N. envoy shaking hands with ex-presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It's a photograph that captures a moment during negotiations over the 1994 Cairo Agreement, when the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, confronted by a visibly livid Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, refused to sign off on a territorial provision from Oslo Peace Process.  In the end, Arafat did ultimately sign the landmark May 4 accord establishing Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

But it was that moment of apparent hesitation that stuck with Prosor all these years and which, in a larger sense, has come to define the prevailing Israeli narrative about Middle East peace process -- that it's the Palestinians inability to close a deal, and make peace, that has brought the Middle East Peace process to the brink of failure.

That's the narrative Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the U.N. since June, is hoping will help derail, or at least weaken, Palestine's drive to gain the United Nations' recognition as an independent state in September. "We are seeking a moral minority of countries who would oppose this move," he told Turtle Bay in an interview in his office.

But with most U.N. delegations still inclined to doubt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's willingness to make the painful concessions required to secure a final peace deal with Palestine, it's unclear how successful Prosor's campaign will be. 

So far, the Palestinians claim to be winning the numbers game at the United Nations. Palestinian officials insist they has secured commitments from 122 countries -- just shy of the 129 required for the 2/3 majority needed for a measure to pass -- to support a non-binding General Assembly resolution declaring a Palestinian state.  And while General Assembly action would not be sufficient to grant Palestine the status of an independent state -- only the Security Council has the authority to approve new U.N. members -- it would be a strong symbol of Israel's growing isolation at the United Nations.

On Monday, Norway's foreign minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, following a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, suggested Oslo may be inclined back the Palestinian bid, saying it was "perfectly legitimate" for the Palestinians to seek a vote on statehood. Spain's Foreign Minister, Trinidad Jimenez, followed suit, assuring Abbas in a meeting that the bid for U.N. recognition is "legitimate" and that Madrid would consider any Palestinian proposals at the United Nations "in a constructive spirit," according to the AFP.

Still, there's no guarantee that the Palestinian resolution will succeed.  U.S. President Barack Obama has said that Israel can count on the diplomatic backing of the United States (whose veto power in the Security Council will come in handy if a vote for Palestinian sovereignty is ever held there.) Israeli officials are also confident they can split the European Union vote in the General Assembly, leveraging their close relations with Germany. Indeed, the Palestinians have struggled to secure firm commitments from key European powers, including France and Britain, who have expressed sympathy with the Palestinian position but have been reluctant to risk a rift with Israel.

But Israel will also have to contend with the fact that the creation of a Palestinian state has been a principal objective of the United Nations since its birth. In 1947, the U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab States. The measure was never implemented and Israel declared independence the following year, setting the stage for a military attack against the new Jewish state by five Arab countries. But more than sixty years of armed struggle, war and negotiations has still not delivered the Palestinians their own state.

The latest diplomatic standoff comes nearly one year after President Barack Obama announced his hopes before the U.N. General Assembly that the Palestinians and Israelis would negotiate a peace agreement between themselves by September 2011, paving the way for the Palestinians to join the U.N. as an independent nation. With peace talks now stalled the Palestinians have vowed to seek U.N. recognition on their own terms.

"We will seek to go to the U.N. next September in order to obtain membership for the state of Palestine," President Abbas said Monday. "Our way is to go to the Security Council. If we fail we will go to the General Assembly."

The Obama administration has urged the Palestinians to avoid a confrontation at the United Nations over statehood, saying it would do little to advance their aspirations for independence. Direct negotiations with the Israelis, they say, offers the only hope of a viable independent Palestinian state.

"The goal is not a Security Council resolution per se," Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told Washington Post reporter William Wan in an interview last month in Istanbul, Turkey. "The goal is to get a state that looks like a state, acts like a state, that has the flexibility of statehood, that provides jobs for Palestinians, that gives Palestinian youth a future in which they can invest themselves. That's the sort of statehood we want, not just something that's created or not created through [a] resolution."

Prosor said his government is actively pursuing a resumption of direct talks with the Palestinians through unnamed "intermediaries." But he noted that any "unilateral actions" by the Palestinians to declare independence would be a breach of the Oslo accords. "I hope we will be able to move forward," he said. "But we need two to tango."

The Palestinian's U.N. ambassador, Ryad Mansour, maintains that Israel is the one blocking peace talks by pursuing the construction of new Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. He said that the there is an international consensus that the settlements are an illegal obstacle to peace and that any future talks with Israel must be based on a set of six elements, or parameters, including an acknowledgment by the Israelis that direct talks would be negotiated on the basis of the 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, and that the fate of Palestinian refugees will be resolved.

"We agree that that unilateral actions are destroying the possibility of the revival of the peace process," Mansour told reporters last month. "The biggest unilateral action that we've been seeing for a long time is the illegal settlement campaign by Israel against our people."

Prosor denied that the settlement policy is a hurdle in the peace process, noting that Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a nine-month freeze on settlements without securing a Palestinian commitment to enter into direct negotiations. The real obstacle for peace, he said, is the Palestinian demand for the right of return of refugees. "There is not going to be a right of return because it is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel in numbers," Prosor said.

Despite the stalemate, Prosor said that one of his chief goals as Israel's new U.N. envoy is to present Israel before the world as a normal country, free of the baggage that comes from its ongoing regional struggles.

He cited Israel's efforts to promote good works in the developing world, including solar energy programs irrigation initiatives it is carrying out in Africa.  He also highlighted his country's ceremonial role in June as chair of the U.N.'s main western voting block -- the Western and Others Group (or WEOG) -- during the reelection of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for a second term and the election of a Qatari diplomat as the new General Assembly President. 

But with the troubles with Palestine tending to attract more attention than Israel's other good deeds, Prosor will have his work cut out for him in the months ahead.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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