Explaining Israel's Reaction to the U.N.'s pro-Palestinian Vote

UN General Assembly
Palestinian leader Abbas delivers his successful pitch to the General Assembly. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Israel's leaders stayed surprisingly calm last week. In the weeks leading up to Thursday's vote on upgrading the Palestinians' U.N. membership, a few senior Israeli officials drafted a position paper focusing on how the government should respond. The U.N. move, the writers warned, threatened to "severely damage" Israel's credibility and undermine the Jewish state's position in future peace negotiations. But more than that, they added, the initiative could open the door to war-crimes prosecutions against Israelis at the International Criminal Court. The five-page paper, dated Nov. 12 and obtained by Newsweek, advised that if the vote went ahead, Israel should "exact a heavy price" from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—a price to include dismantling his Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. "A softer approach would amount to waving a white flag and admitting that the Israeli leadership is unable to rise to the challenge," the writers concluded.

The upgrade, which the General Assembly approved last week by a huge majority, is a bitter pill for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It includes not only a boost in the Palestinians' status from (U.N. jargon alert!) "non-member observer entity" to "non-member observer state," but also a recognition of their right to all of the West Bank and Gaza, including territory that Israelis have settled since 1967. Even some dovish Israelis have problems with the resolution's sweep. And yet Israel's response—a dismissive statement from the prime minister and the floating of plans to build thousands of new housing units in the West Bank—fell well short of the threats to topple Abbas. "This is a meaningless resolution that won't change anything on the ground," Netanyahu said in a handout just before the vote.

What cooled things down? Although Israeli governments often speak in multiple voices, internal disagreements don't explain the change. To be sure, the officials who drafted the position paper work for Israel's Foreign Ministry, where the boss, Avigdor Lieberman, is among the government's hardest hardliners. For months Lieberman was saying that Abbas should be toppled. But Netanyahu was also threatening tough action against the Palestinians as recently as a few weeks ago. And when the rhetoric started softening in the days leading up to the vote, Lieberman's tone moderated as well.

Instead, the shift evidently reflects something akin to panic in Israeli governing circles—and a desperate bid to contain the damage. That Israel would lose the General Assembly vote was a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu voiced hope for retaining the support of a "qualitative minority," meaning the world's leading democratic countries. But as even that vision crumbled—among Western democracies, only the United States and Canada ended up voting against the resolution—a sense of isolation crept over the Jewish state, a kind of déjà vu from the dark days of the 1970s. "There was a realization at some point that a harsh response would make it worse," a senior Israeli official tells Newsweek, describing internal discussions before the vote. "And we can't afford that. It would backfire on us."

The first turning point was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Nov. 20 visit to Israel, the official says. The war with Gaza was winding down, and although Israel had dealt a significant military blow to the enclave's ruling party, Islamic Hamas, the group's status was rising among Palestinians and in the Arab world generally. That caused deep concern in Washington: the growing influence of Hamas hardliners would weaken the more moderate Abbas and his West Bank administration.

In two separate meetings with Netanyahu, Clinton pledged to help clinch a ceasefire. But in return, according to two people familiar with the details of the discussion, she pressed the Israeli leader to refrain from taking harsh steps against Abbas over the U.N. initiative. One of the sources says Clinton specifically referenced issues raised in the Israeli position paper: she warned Netanyahu neither to withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority (Israel collects customs duties on behalf of the Palestinian administration, providing much of its operating budget) nor to do anything else to topple Abbas.

Then came the European defections, which Israel had worked hard to prevent. France announced on Wednesday that it would support the Palestinian initiative. Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, pressed his senior coalition partner to follow suit. When Prime Minister David Cameron opted to abstain, it wasn't quite the decision Abbas had hoped for, but it was still a disappointment for Netanyahu. Even Germany, whose support for Israel is almost automatic at every international forum, declined to vote against the Palestinian initiative.

When the votes were tallied, only nine of 193 U.N. member states opposed the resolution (41 countries abstained). Israel, having portrayed the Palestinian upgrade as a unilateral move that violated previous peace deals, had counted on the backing of at least the major European Union countries. Instead it got only the Czech Republic—together with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama, and Palau.

UN General Assembly
On the floor at the United Nations on the day of the landslide decision. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In the aftermath, Israelis are divided over the decision's practical significance. One fear is that Palestinians will use their new statehood designation to gain membership in the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where they could have charges brought against Israelis over the recent killings of civilians in Gaza, for example. Even the expansion of settlements in the West Bank could trigger indictments, according to Aeyal Gross, an expert on international law at Tel Aviv University. The issue hinges on whether the ICC's chief prosecutor accepts the U.N. vote as the criterion for Palestinian statehood, Gross says: "I think potentially it's a big deal."

If the Palestinians do gain entrance to the ICC, Netanyahu would likely make good on some of his threats against Abbas. But even then, it's not clear Israel would topple the Palestinian leader. Israeli complaining aside, Abbas has kept the West Bank quiet over the past eight years, sustained security cooperation with Israel even when political contacts stalled, and pledged never to resort to violence against the Jewish state. "There will be no armed, third armed Intifada," he told Israeli television in an interview last month. "Never." The dismantling of his administration would force Israel to fill the void, with soldiers once again running the daily lives of 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank. The price tag for that, according to a study commissioned by Israel a few years ago: billions of dollars a year.

Which brings us back to the position paper. In some ways, the Israeli document reads like a psychological-warfare campaign against Abbas. In a long section titled "The Palestinian Angle," the document catalogs corruption allegations against the Palestinian leader made by his detractors, mainly former PLO finance chief Ahmed Rashid. It asserts that Abbas fears being overthrown, like other Arab leaders, and has prepared a contingency plan to flee with his family to Jordan.

Details of the section were leaked to Israeli newspapers, in what must have seemed to the Palestinian side a form of intimidation—or at least a smear job. "The failure by Abu Mazen [as Abbas is commonly known] to deal with the problems of unemployment, personal security, and corruption ... led him to the conclusion that only a dramatic move like going to the General Assembly would deflect Palestinian attention away from his many failures," the document asserts. If the authors did hope that such attacks would dissuade Abbas from following through on his U.N. initiative, the failure is entirely their own.