Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee briefing entitled “Promoting Peace? Reexamining U.S. Assistance to the Palestinian Authority, Part II”:
Madame Chairman, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has apparently chosen to scorn the negotiation table in favor of unilateral action at the UN – action that he says will bring his people closer to statehood. This step, which runs counter both to repeated US requests and to prior Palestinian commitments, is likely to have disastrous consequences. And almost certainly it will make the prospect of Palestinian statehood ever more distant.
Exactly what the Palestinians intend to do, what their resolution will say, and what process they will pursue at the U.N. are unknown at this time. Perhaps there is still time for good sense and effective diplomacy to prevail. Should the Palestinians follow through with their UN initiative, however, they will be reneging on their past commitment – enshrined in the 1993 Oslo agreement and elsewhere – to resolve their problems with Israel through direct, bilateral negotiations.
One thing is clear: There will be no recognition of Palestinian statehood by the Security Council, where I am certain the Obama Administration would use its veto, just as it has in the past, to prevent the passage of an unbalanced, anti-Israel resolution.
That means the Palestinians will likely take their case to the U.N. General Assembly. And what exactly would General Assembly recognition of a Palestinian state do for the Palestinian people? Absolutely nothing. It would not help the Palestinians achieve a state that lives in peace alongside Israel. It would not solve the Palestinians' need for recognized borders, nor would it solve sensitive issues like the status of Jerusalem, water rights, or Palestinian refugees. Nor would it improve the economy or the security of the West Bank or Gaza. In fact, Abbas’ strategy would leave the core issues of the conflict unresolved and festering.
Yet, while a UN General Assembly resolution will have absolutely no impact on the ground, it could have a major impact in international courts of law – or so many experts assert. If the General Assembly enhances the Palestinians’ current status as a “non-state observer” to that of a “state”, the Palestinians would have standing to bring cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. And that is exactly what President Abbas has indicated he will do. Of course, that would merely waste more time and further poison relations with Israel, making statehood, and peace, further away than ever.
I would appeal to our European friends and to all nations not to support a resolution with such calamitous potential.
Many analysts have suggested that the UN initiative reflects the fact that Abbas is a prisoner of domestic politics, that he must burnish his nationalist credentials if he is to be a credible leader. According to a poll three months ago, Palestinians favored the initiative by 65% to 31%. But those views may be evolving. According to another Palestinian poll, released just last week, only 35% of Palestinians now believe that the Palestinian Authority should go ahead with their UN strategy, while a clear majority, 59%, said that the PA should go back to the negotiation table with the Israelis for the sake of a permanent peace. I don’t want to put too much stock in Palestinian polling, but it just may be the case that Abbas is misjudging his own people. I’d be interested in the views of our panelists on the quality of those polls, if they’re familiar with them.
Madame Chairman, Congress has been very generous in its support of the Palestinian Authority's worthy efforts to build institutions and the economy in the West Bank. In fact, we are the most generous nation in the world in that regard. Therefore, I believe it is appropriate to point out that should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years, will likely be terminated. And that could well result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
It pains me to say that. US aid has contributed significantly to many positive developments in the West Bank – economic growth, institution-building, progress in governance, and improved security for the Palestinians and Israel. But all of that is just a band-aid. It will not last if there is no political solution and for that we need negotiations, not UN unilateralism.
We will be prudent in our actions. But one thing is clear: President Abbas’ Palestinian Authority should not be rewarded with American taxpayer dollars for actions that defy Palestinian commitments, threaten to destabilize the region, and run counter to U.S. interests. Those dollars can be better spent elsewhere.
Just two months ago this body passed House Resolution 268, which said that the House – and I quote – “affirms that Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiations and pursue recognition of statehood prior to agreement with Israel will harm United States-Palestinian relations and will have serious implications for the United States assistance programs for the Palestinians and the Palestinians Authority.”
The Palestinians have been forewarned. We should not shrink from this pledge of just two months ago.
In closing, I want to reiterate my conviction that negotiations provide the only path to a lasting two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Abbas likes to tell people he wouldn’t get anything in negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the fact is that he hasn’t even tested the proposition, even though Netanyahu has repeatedly made clear his desire to commence talks unconditionally. It is not too late for President Abbas to abandon his flawed U.N. strategy and engage directly with the Israelis. For the sake of peace – and for the sake of his relations with the Palestinians’ most important benefactor, the United States of America – I urge him to do so.