Is there a Quid Pro Quo – or was it a cave-in?

The Palestinian decision to “withdraw” support for a resolution they were pushing in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva remains unexplained — at least, to the Palestinian people — on Friday night.

The draft resolution would have called for support of the report submitted by South Africa’s Justice Richard Goldstone, who was appointed to head the Human Rights Council’s Fact-Finding Mission on last winter’s Gaza. The resolution would also have referral the Goldstone report to the UN General Assembly for action. Instead, another resolution was adopted to postpone consideration of the report’s findings.

The news was leaked by Israeli media on Thursday evening. On Friday afternoon in Geneva it become official: the Human Rights Council members agreed to “postpone” consideration of the report’s conclusions until next March, 2010.

Even though Friday is the normal Palestinian weekend day off, there was no effort to explain to the Palestinian people why their leadership “withdraw” backing for an immediate vote by the UN Human Rights Council.

Instead, there was confusion and disarray.

On Friday morning, Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat (newly elected member of the Fatah Central Council and of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee) denied that the draft resolution would be withdrawn. There was some suggestion that the Arab and Islamic members of the Human Rights Council would go ahead and table the draft resolution, anyway. The Palestine Observer mission is not a member, after all, but only an observer. But, within minutes, “close aides” to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas contradicted Erekat, and announced that the Palestinians had indeed withdrawn support for the resolution.

The Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency confirmed that Arab and Islamic members did indeed line up in support of the alternative proposal. “Friday’s move followed a request by Pakistan, on behalf of Arab, African, Non Aligned and Muslim states that supported the report, to defer endorsement, according to documents filed with the Council”. This AFP report can be read in full here.

The only explanation came from media reports — it was a result of U.S. pressure.

Does that mean we will soon see the Quid Pro Quo — whatever it is that the Palestinians may stand to gain by this enormous and otherwise humiliating concession?

Or was it just a complete cave in?

(Or, maybe the Palestinian leadership factually read the Goldstone report, with its criticism of the human rights situation throughout the occupied Palestinian territory — and that might have made it easier for them to take this move.)

The Associated Press (AP) reported — without further details — that “Palestinian officials said the leadership in Ramallah was bitterly divided over the issue”,

AP added that Shawan Jabareen, the head of the Palestinian human rights group, Al Haq, said: “We did not expect that the Palestinian Authority itself would go against justice, and not uphold the universal application of international human rights law for its own people”. AP added that “Jabareen said human rights groups met earlier this week with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and were assured by him that the Palestinians would continue to seek a war crimes investigation”. This AP report can be read in full here.

But, an earlier AP report noted that “A senior U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinian decision came after ‘intense diplomacy’ by Washington to convince the Palestinian leadership that going ahead with the resolution would harm the Middle East peace process. ‘The Palestinians recognized that this was not the best time to go forward with this’, the U.S. official said”. This AP report is posted here.

Netanyahu, who reportedly was considering establishing an independent investigation, returned to a harder line on Thursday, as it became clear that the pressure exerted on the Palestinian leadership had been successful. Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet on Thursday that the draft resolution, if adopted, would deal a mortal blow to the peace process — which itself was suspended by the Palestinian leadership when Israel launched its 22-day military offensive against Gaza last winter.

The Palestinian leadership has not yet agreed to resume peace negotiations with Israel, but U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell did hold separate meetings in Washington this week with Israel and Palestinian envoys to see if there would be a way to re-start peace talks. On 22 September, after repeated Palestinian indications that they would refuse to meet with the Israeli government unless it stopped its settlement activities, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas indicated he could not refuse an invitation from U.S. President Barack Obama for a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual high-level debate which went from a bilaterial to a trilateral format, involving Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli military has dismissed many of the allegations made against its Gaza offensive, but it has reported that the military is conducting its own investigations into some particular — but so far unspecified — matters that occurred in the Gaza war.

The problem with that, according to human rights experts and to Justice Goldstone himself, is that there should be a completely independent investigation.

The only Palestinian official whose fingerprints were on this decision was the head of the Palestinian Observer Mission to the UN in Geneva, Ibrahim Khraishi.

Palstinian television ran an interview with Khraishi on Friday night in which he suggested that the five-month period until next March, added to the nearly three weeks since the Goldstone report was issued on 15 September, can be seen as the six-month period suggested in the Goldstone report to allow both Israel and the Hamas authorities in Gaza to carry out their own independent investigations into the report’s findings.

The New York Times reported that Khraishi said by telephone from Geneva:“We don’t want to create an obstacle for them”. (It is not clear from the text of the article what is the exact prior reference for “them” — American diplomats? Peace negotiations? Or the promised Israeli and Hamas investigations. ) This NYTimes report is published here.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, in Gaza, told Ma’an News Agency that “This move is reflective of the conspiracy between the PA in Ramallah and the Israeli occupation”.

The Jerusalem Post’s correspondent specializing in Palestinian affairs, Khaled Abu Toameh, reported in an article published Friday that “Palestinian officials, including some of Mahmoud Abbas’s top aides, did not hide their disappointment when the war ended without the removal or collapse of Hamas. As soon as the war ended, the same Palestinian Authority that had urged Israel to ‘finish off the job’, and that had provided Israel with vital information about Hamas figures and installations in the
Gaza Strip, started accusing Israel of committing ‘war crimes’. The PA even appealed to The Hague court to launch an investigation into the alleged war crimes”. Khaled Abu Toameh’s article can be read in full here.

The Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister went to the Hague during the Israeli military operation last winter, and the Palestinian Authority Justice Minister made a fmore recent ollow-up visit to the Hague, asking the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.

Some Palestinians in Jerusalem on Friday were scornfully amused. Others were angry and depressed. “They are liars”, said one. “But nothing will happen, It’s not the first time they’ve done something like this”.

On Friday evening, Amnesty International issued a statement calling on “the UN Secretary-General to refer the report to the UN Security Council without delay”.

That, it can safely be predicted, will not happen.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that “The decision at the UN Human Rights Council to defer a vote on the Goldstone Gaza report until March 2010 obliges the United States and other governments blocking action at the council to press Israel and Hamas to commence credible investigations … Given its responsibility for forcing a deferral of the vote and its criticism of the mission led by Justice Richard Goldstone, the United States bears a special responsibility to ensure that Israel commences investigations that are credible, impartial and meet international standards” … Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch, said that “The United States won Israel a reprieve on the Goldstone report, so now it must ensure that Israel genuinely investigates allegations of abuse … If this doesn’t happen by March, then the US should endorse the Goldstone report’s call for international mechanisms of accountability.” She also said that “The failure of the US and European states to endorse the Goldstone report sent a terrible message that serious laws-of-war violations by allied states would be tolerated” .

And, a group of Palestinian human rights organizations, including Al-Haq, issued a joint statement on Friday afternoon saying that “Were the UN General Assembly to remain inactive in light of the Goldstone findings and recommendations it will be a clear message to Israel, as well as to other states, that even the most manifest and egregious violations of international law will be tolerated by the UN, suggesting therefore that international law has no meaningful role to play in the resolution of conflict … The General Assembly has a historic, moral, and legal obligation in ensuring that Israel abides by international law and a corresponding duty to safeguard Palestinian rights: it was General Assembly resolutions that recommended the partition of Mandate Palestine and admitted Israel to the UN”. The Palestinian human rights groups urged “(1) that the General Assembly recommends to member states of the UN, and to the Security Council, that the basis of any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must be grounded in international law, and (2) that UN member states adopt a principled and determined stance, using the powers granted to the General Assembly under Resolution 377 A (V): ‘Uniting for Peace’ to: (1) recommend that Israel be subjected to the full weight of collective measures until its occupation of the OPT is ended and the rights of the Palestinian people are achieved; and (2) ensure that the recommendations of the Goldstone Report are followed in full in order to ensure that there is full accountability for the crimes committed in Gaza”.

However, in the UN’s customary practice, the UN General Assembly only resorts to the “Uniting for Peace” resolution after the UN Security Council has failed to act due to the negative vote (or veto) cast by any one of the five Permanent Members (who include the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China).

In Washington on Friday, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs, Dr. Esther Brimmer, confirmed the U.S. diplomatic intervention in the Human Rights Council deliberations, telling journalists that “We discussed with [Human Rights] council members – and in particular, we discussed with council members and the state of Israel, as well as the Palestinian Authority – how to approach the Goldstone report. As you know, the United States has reviewed the Goldstone report carefully. We have serious concerns about the report’s unbalanced focus on Israel, its sweeping factual and legal conclusions, and many of its recommendations; however, the issues are difficult and the stakes are high, linked as they are to fundamental goals of security and peace for both Israel and the Palestinians. Israel’s right to self-defense and security must never be diminished. We must do everything in our power to end the suffering of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians. We appreciate the decision to defer consideration of the Goldstone report, and we’ll continue to focus on working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to re-launch permanent status negotiations as soon as possible. We also encourage domestic investigations of credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”

In the briefing, there were these revealing exchanges with journalists:
QUESTION: On the Goldstone referral, how much pressure did the U.S. put on the Palestinians to defer this? And what do you hope to get from the deferral? Are you looking for Israel maybe to put a select number of people on trial? And it’s going to be six – a six-month delay. You expect – you really expect Hamas to do anything on their side in that six months?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, I’d say we appreciate the seriousness with which the parties addressed this issue, and the way they addressed it, really, during the session of the Human Rights Council. We’ve always said that the issue should be discussed in a constructive and non-divisive manner, and we’re grateful that that’s the approach that was taken by the parties to the report at this point. And the parties will now continue to look at it and prepare for the next session in March.

QUESTION: Quickly I got one more on Goldstone. This has just occurred to me. And that is, it’s my understanding that the United States had actually prepared an alternate draft for the Palestinians if they would withdraw their original resolution. Is that correct? Did – if it is correct, did the Israelis tell you that that also would not be acceptable to them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We were prepared to, in case – first, in case the resolution – the Palestinian resolution came to the floor. We also did talk closely both to the Palestinians and to the Israelis about our main concerns of the report, what we would think a positive resolution – what it might look like. But clearly, it was the Palestinian resolution that was actually brought to the floor, so that’s what actually moved ahead”.

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