Palestinian couple Nabeel, right, and Nabeela Isead make Palestinian… (Ammar Awad, Reuters )
Reporting from Jerusalem — Heading toward a potential Mideast game-changer at the United Nations this month, Israel's government is facing questions at home about whether it could have done more to block the Palestinians' planned statehood bid.
Critics say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to respond aggressively enough to either lure Palestinians back into peace talks or pressure them to abandon the U.N. initiative, in which Palestinians are expected to seek full membership in the international body or, if that fails, an upgraded status from observer "entity" to nonmember "state."
In the face of one of the Palestinians' most aggressive diplomatic moves to date, Israel's response has appeared unfocused and at times contradictory, critics complain.
"What strategy?" popular Israel Radio political commentator Yaron Deckel asked in an interview. "You mean lack of strategy. Israel is facing a clear defeat. There is no chance now. Due to the domestic political considerations of the right wing, the government was too afraid to take any risks."
Others said the government appeared overly confident that the Palestinians' bid was a bluff or that international pressure from the United States or others would keep the issue from reaching the U.N. Israeli officials spent months trying to sway European leaders to oppose the initiative with only limited success. U.S. officials made a last-ditch effort this week to stop the Palestinians, to no apparent avail.
"That strategy was doomed to fail from the start, and it should have been obvious," said Mideast expert Yossi Alpher, co-editor of bitterlemons.org, a Web-based political analysis magazine. "Now for the first time in years, Palestinians have the initiative and we don't. There is no Israeli initiative."
Netanyahu aides deny that they've been outmaneuvered and say exhaustive preparations have been made behind the scenes. They noted that the U.S. is expected to use its Security Council veto to block full Palestinian membership, but said there was little Israel could do to prevent Palestinians from turning to the General Assembly, where a Palestinian resolution for upgraded status is expected to win overwhelming support.
Israeli officials warned that moving too quickly or aggressively might have backfired, serving only to antagonize Palestinians or give momentum to their campaign. The Palestinians so far remain vague about exactly what they plan to ask for at the U.N. Until that's clear, Israeli officials say, it's not prudent to respond publicly.
"The Palestinians do a lot of brinkmanship," said an Israeli government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "We took the position that they haven't gone there yet. Our strategy has not been employed. Until they go through with it, we are leaving the status quo in place."
But he said the prime minister's security Cabinet has met repeatedly to lay out contingency plans, depending upon what happens at the U.N. The Palestinian move could be largely symbolic or it could have a long-term effect on future negotiations and provide Palestinians with new legitimacy on the international stage.
One red line, he said, would be if Palestinians use their upgraded status to seek admittance to the U.N.-chartered International Criminal Court and then press a war crimes lawsuit against Israel. Such a step would make a resumption of peace talks impossible, he said.
"It would be a declaration of war, diplomatic war," the official said. "We are not going to sit down and talk to someone who accuses us of war crimes."
But opposition leaders and pundits have doubts about the government's preparations, saying Netanyahu's coalition appears paralyzed.
A harshly worded report last month by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, or parliament, said the government "did not prevent what could have been prevented, and afterward failed to prepare accordingly," according to leaked excerpts of the document published in Israel.
A recent article in the daily newspaper Maariv said, "Israel is marching with its head held high toward one of the most crushing diplomatic defeats in its history."
Inside Netanyahu's government, conflicting voices have emerged over how to cope with the situation. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres held secret but unsuccessful meetings in recent months with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an attempt to persuade the Palestinians to stop their bid. But it remained unclear whether the efforts had the full support of Netanyahu.
Barak has described the U.N. initiative as a "diplomatic tsunami," while Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon downplayed it as a mere "scarecrow."