Does the US have leverage over the PLO?

The Obama administration is still trying to avert the PLO’s bid for full UN membership, but its most compelling threat, the promise to slash aid to the Palestinian Authority, is probably an empty one.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation seems to have passed the point of no return in its bid for full membership at the United Nations. Mahmoud Abbas could still abandon the bid – he will not formally submit the PLO’s request until later this week – but that would be a politically ruinous move after his speech on Friday night.

Nonetheless, the United States and the European Union are still trying to convince Abbas to back down. There will be a few frantic meetings in New York this week ahead of Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday.

The carrot they are offering him is the prospect of renewed negotiations with Israel, possibly with a timer attached: If talks do not go anywhere after, say, six months, the so-called Quartet would then endorse the PLO’s bid for UN membership.

Abbas does not seem interested. As we reported on Saturday, it was one of these US proposals for renewed talks (which Nabil Shaath described as “useless”) that convinced Abbas he needed to go to the Security Council.

That leaves sticks. The most compelling one, you would think, is the possibility that US lawmakers will slash aid to the Palestinian Authority, which depends heavily on foreign aid.

The US gave the PA roughly $470m last year, more than 10 per cent of the authority’s budget. Various lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, have suggested cutting that aid after the UN vote. At a congressional hearing last week, Steve Chabot, a Republican congressman from Ohio, said “the question before this Congress will not be what portion of our aid will be cut, but rather what portion will remain”.

But would Washington follow through on that threat?

Israel, after all, does not really want to undermine the Palestinian Authority, which provides security and basic services in the Palestinian-controlled parts of the occupied West Bank. If the sulta (as it is known) went bankrupt, the Israeli government would be responsible for those functions, something it cannot afford – especially now with hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets over socioeconomic problems.

Indeed, a number of high-ranking Israeli ministers, including defence minister Ehud Barak, have warned against punitive measures for exactly that reason. As Ha’aretz reported today:

[Barak and others] warn that it could lead to violence and the cessation of security cooperation between the PA and Israel, and could, under certain circumstances, lead to the total collapse of the PA, throwing responsibility for all of the West Bank’s inhabitants back on Israel.

Congress is usually quite responsive to Israeli concerns (to say the least). And even if Congress cuts aid to the PA, US President Barack Obama could reinstate it with an executive order.

So cutting aid to the PA seems like an empty threat. What does that leave? Not much, according to a summary of last week’s congressional hearing, which was dominated by conservative and “pro-Israel” witnesses.

The most popular ideas were shutting the PLO’s mission in Washington and auditing Abbas’ personal finances, neither of which seems very compelling.

Abbas could still back down at the 11th hour. I have spoken with quite a few Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who expect that he will. But – in the absence of any compelling proposals from the Quartet and any real pressure from the US – it is hard to see why he would.