Heightened drama at monthly UNSC debate on Middle East, ahead of possible Palestinian bid at UN

The tone in Robert Serry’s voice conveyed an urgency greater than the mere words on paper.

On Tuesday [26 July], during the now-regular monthly meeting of the UN Security Council on the Middle East, Serry — who is the new UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and also Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General — Serry told the UN Security Council that “the political process to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in profound and persistent deadlock“.

He spoke of the evident “differences and lack of trust between the parties”.

According to the logic of Serry’s statement, Israel maintains its military occupation that began with its conquests in the June 1967 war, some 43 years ago, because of Israeli leadership’s gnawing concerns for “lasting security”.

In the absence of a credible political horizon for ending the occupation that began in 1967, and of any framework for meaningful talks, and with Israeli settlement activity continuing, the Palestinian leadership is now actively exploring approaching the UN, Serry said — as a way to help preserve the two-state solution.

Israel has objected to any such move, calling it a “unilateral” action which violates — and might invalidate — the Oslo Accords negotiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] in the early and mid-1990s. Various Israeli officials have threatened a number of possible difficult reactions, including an intensification of the difficulties [for Palestinians] of the Israeli occupation. Some Israelis have even threatened possible partial annexation of areas in the West Bank [parts of the West Bank in and around the Old City of Jerusalem have already been effectively annexed in the weeks following the June 1967 war, although UN member states have voted, in the UNSC and in the UN General Assembly and in other bodies and organs, to consider this unilateral Israeli act “null and void”].

This monthly UNSC debate, which has become rather routine, was described this time in Israeli media reports as a kind of a dress rehearsal for what might happen at the UN in September, when the Palestinian leadership has decided to make some kind of as-yet-undefined move towards functional statehood [unless, of course, they change their minds at the last minute, as they have with so many other things, including local and national elections…]

Serry told the Council that “the PA has in key areas reached a level of institutional performance sufficient for a functioning state … and is ready to assume the responsibilities of statehood at any point in the near future”.

Twenty years after the start of the inconclusive peace talks, starting with the multilateral Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 [whose very slow progress lead to secret side talks, sponsored by Norway, between Israel and Palestinian figures, that resulted in the Oslo process that in 1994 instituted a transitional five-year arrangement including the establishment of a local Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza], “yet, again, we are reaching a point where the parties have failed to meet an agreed timeline for a permanent status agreement … [and] I cannot but describe the situation where Palestinian state-building has matured in the West Bank, but the political track has failed to converge, as dramatic”, Serry said.

Serry added that, at this sensitive and important time, but in the absence of a credible political path forward, accompanied by more far-reaching steps on the ground, he feared that “the viability of the Palestinian Authority, and its state-building agenda … and of the two-state solution itself”, are indeed at risk.

Contradicting what he implied was the Israeli argument for maintaining its military occupation of Palestinian land and lives, Serry stated that “real security and economic gains have been made, benefitting both peoples”.

He noted, in an even tone, that there needs to be “more political and physical space”, and said that Israel should take steps to roll back the occupation, including “expansion of Palestinian urban centers to accommodate population growth and industrial activity which would require some parts of Area C” [zones in the West Bank defined in the Oslo Accords as areas of total Israeli civil and security control — and where all Israeli settlements and their infrastructure, including roads, are located].

Palestinian water and sanitation systems in the West Bank have especially been targetted, Serry told the Council.

And more than 700 Palestinians in the West Bank have been displaced with the destruction of some 370 structures — these are the highest numbers since 2006, he said.

Serry added that Israeli settlements “are illegal under international law and prejudge final status negotiations”.

He noted that, at the same time, the Palestinian Authority is facing a shortfall in donor funding, and was only able to pay half salaries in June… and UNRWA faces an unprecedented funding shortfall of some $61 million dollars for its core programs, which could have great adverse affect Gaza as soon as October, Serry said.

The Observer of Palestine, Riyad Mansour, was described in the Israeli media as “breaking down” when he spoke and asked why the Palestinians should endure one more day of Israeli occupation: “This is the time to end the Israeli occupation. This is the time for Palestine’s independence”.

His voice was gravelly and cracking, as if he had a cold or some small congestion, at the beginning of his speech. About 18 minutes into reading his prepared text, he paused, swallowed, took a sip of water, and sniffed or sniffled once — just after reading the phrase, “This is the time for Palestine’s independence”.

It would be a great exaggeration, however, to call this “breaking down in tears”, as was first reported by Israel’s YNet website, here.

This report on an alleged breakdown was then echoed, a bit surprisingly, by the Tel-Aviv-based +972 online magazine [named after Israel’s international calling code], here.

At that point, Mansour had just said “there is no justification for the denial of the rights and freedom of the Palestinian people”.

The coming UN bid by the Palestinian leadership, he said, is not a unilateral but rather a multilateral action.

He blamed the Quartet for “a serious missed opportunity” [due, he said, to Israel’s intransigence] in failing to endorse the parameter proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama to restart negotiations on the basis of the pre-June 1967 “borders” and come up with a framework for moving ahead, in the Quartet meeting at dinner in Washington on 11 July.

Mansour’s words expressing appreciation for their recent meeting in Serry’s office in Jerusalem — located in Government House, the former British headquarters on the southern edge of Jerusalem near Bethlehem — first made Serry smile, then raise his eyebrows, as Mansour said the Palestinians have hoped, “when we have our own independent state”, to relocate their Presidential office in the colonial British Mandate-era Government House with its rose garden and tall trees, and Art Deco mixed with Oriental architectural style …

The full three-hour meeting can be viewed here, while the UN’s verbatim record, or transcript can be read here.

Israel’s newly-accredited Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, told the Council that, if carried out, a Palestinian move at the UN would be a unilateral attempt to create a state while bypassing negotiations, which s publicly opposed by some Palestinian leaders, and which could lead to violence … because it “could create expectations that could not be met”.

And, Prosor suggested, Israel’s Ben Gurion international airport, located near Tel Aviv, could come under rocket attack from the West Bank if a Palestinian state is declared unilaterally, rather than as a result of careful negotiations [but the Israeli Ambassador did not explain why there has never been any such apocalyptical attack so far, despite the fact that such a prospect was publicly discussed for the first time in 2004 in speculative reports in the Israeli media, sourced to unnamed Israeli security officials].

The American representative told the UNSC that the “temptations of symbolism” should be avoided. The U.S. would not support “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the UN in September” [which in any case would not create an independent Palestinian state, she stated]. Nor would the U.S. support unilateral campaigns at the UN in September, or any other time.

“We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity”, she said, using a formulation that the U.S. has used before — in fact, for decades, as she noted. This apparently means that the U.S. believes everything up until a certain point [now?] is ok, but continuing it beyond that point [now?] would not be seen as legitimate…

The U.S. representative added that the fate of existing settlements should be dealt with by the parties.

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