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Analysis: Israel circles wagons ahead of Palestinian vote

Sep 14, 2011, 2:40 a.m.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool

By Crispian Balmer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Palestinians' decision to take their bid for statehood to the United Nations has left Israel in a quandary, with no easy moves to counter a diplomatic offensive that could redefine the decades-old Middle East conflict.

Some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ministers want tough retaliation, saying the Palestinian initiative will prevent any meaningful peace talks in future and could provoke fresh unrest in the West Bank after months of relative calm.

Other political leaders recommend caution, arguing that Israel faces enough uncertainty given its worsening ties with Egypt and Turkey, and should ignore the U.N. move as a meaningless public relations exercise.

Netanyahu has not yet decided whether to travel to next week's U.N. General Assembly to defend Israel's corner, underlining the uncertainty at the heart of his government.

"I understand that the Israeli side thinks that this is a bad thing for us. Diagnosis is one thing, but where is the prescription?" said Oded Eran, the head of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

"One thing is sure, Israel's image is going to take another beating."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he has to take the case to the United Nations because 20 years of U.S.-led talks have hit a dead end, with a deal as elusive as ever.

Israel says it is ready for negotiations, but is refusing to bow to Abbas's pre-condition that it renew its freeze of Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem -- land that the Palestinians say is theirs.

With Washington set to veto any statehood resolution in the Security Council, the most the Palestinians can expect is a vote in the General Assembly to upgrade their status from an "entity" to a "non-member state" -- a position held by the Vatican.

The United States says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved only through direct negotiations.

LAWFARE FEARED

Netanyahu has toured Europe this year seeking backing for the Israeli stance, and ensure that most major democracies shun the unilateral move that is likely to seek ratification of a Palestinian state on lines held before the 1967 Middle East war.

Some will heed his call, but at least 120 of the 193 U.N. member states look ready to support the Palestinians -- maybe opening the way for them to join other international bodies, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Israel fears it could use the ICC to take action against some 500,000 Israelis who live in territory seized in 1967 and whose settlements most world powers regard as illegal.

The prospect of never-ending "lawfare" in the ICC is one of the elements that has most concerned Israeli officials as they calculate the impact of any U.N. upgrade for the Palestinians.

"This dangerous move may deteriorate the situation on the ground, weaken the relatively moderate Palestinians and encourage terror activities," said Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon, a Netanyahu deputy and close ally.

Like most Israelis, he says the Palestinian project is a clear violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords which led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), giving it limited self-rule, and set out the guidelines for future peace talks.

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