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The Palestinian UN bid

On 29 November, the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is going to ask the United Nations General Assembly to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Territories to non-member observer state. This step could boost efforts for the international recognition of a State of Palestine after last year's failed bid for full membership at the UN, yet the initiative also contains political risks.

On 29 November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly is set to vote on the upgrade of Palestine’s status from an observer entity to a non-member observer state. The date of the vote bears symbolic significance, as it marks the 65-year anniversary of the adoption of the UN Partition Resolution for Palestine, which envisaged the partition of the British Mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state.

Last year’s initiative by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to obtain full membership failed due to the threat issued by the United States to veto the Palestinian bid for UN membership in the Security Council as well as massive political pressure, which notably included the freeze of aid payments. Moreover, there was a risk that the bid may not have received the necessary majority of nine out of 15 votes in the Security Council, which would have constituted an even greater defeat for President Abbas than the US veto. For this reason, the bid was eventually cancelled.

This year’s initiative differs from the previous one in that the decision on the upgrade to non-member observer state lies with the UN General Assembly rather than with the Security Council and the vote can thus not be vetoed. In fact, the Palestinian leadership seems quite confident in the run-up to the vote: Palestine is already recognized by 131 countries (1) worldwide and can hence be certain to achieve the simple majority necessary for the status upgrade among the 193 UN Member States that are eligible to vote. The Palestinian aspirations for international recognition receive particular support from postcolonial countries in Africa, Asia, and Latina America, whereas Israel, the US and several Western European states disapprove of the move.

Although all parties participating in the stalled peace process (2) officially support the two-state solution, which envisages an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israel and the United States claim, with reference to the Oslo Accords, that this could only be achieved by way of negotiations (3). The problem with this argumentation from a Palestinian perspective is that there have been no negotiations for some time and that even the preceding talks between the two conflict parties yielded little progress in achieving Palestinian sovereignty. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which was established by the interim agreement of 1995, continues to assume full security and administrative control of a mere fraction (18 percent) of the West Bank to this day (4). Consequently, supporters of the Palestinian UN bid argue that it is legitimate to take the initiative and create facts.

Reactions to, and implications of, the UN bid

The Palestinian leadership is taking a certain political risk with its bid for non-member state status, as both Israel and the US threatened repercussions in case of a successful upgrade: the threats reach from the freezing of international aid payments and the non-transfer of Palestinian tax revenues (collected by Israel on behalf of the PNA) to the Palestinian National Authority via the annulation of the Oslo Accords to the annexation of Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank. However, in the days immediately prior to the vote there were increasing indications that neither the United States nor Israel had a genuine interest to adopt measures that would further weaken the PNA.

There are consequently intensive diplomatic efforts to secure international support for their respective position on both the Palestinian and the Israeli side. While Palestinian diplomats and politicians are seeking to win over undecided European states, Israel and the United States are attempting in a concurrent move to pressure and discourage them from supporting the bid. The position of the United States is clear, yet the European Union’s stance is much more ambiguous. Behind the scenes, senior officials are struggling for a united position among the EU member states, but there is indication that the European governments will yet again not speak with one voice: France declared its intention to vote in favor of the upgrade, whereas Great Britain's vote is difficult to predict and Germany is likely to vote against it because of its special relation with Israel (5). Other geopolitically significant and rising actors are much more sympathetic to the Palestinian initiative, such as Russia, India, and Brazil. The People’s Republic of China has repeatedly affirmed its support for the Palestinian bid and is increasingly viewed as a counter-weight to the United States by Palestinian strategists, which might balance the American opposition (6).

According to legal and political analysts, the conferring of non-member observer status on Palestine may give the Palestinian leadership – by way of implicitly recognizing it as a state – the possibility to join sub-organizations and human rights councils of the United Nations and ratify international treaties. This option is of general political and legal interest with regard to the International Criminal Court, as membership may theoretically allow a State of Palestine to file suit against Israeli citizens for alleged violations of international law (e.g., in the context of the occupation of the West Bank or the siege of Gaza) (7). Moreover, negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians would assume the character of a more equal relation, and no longer between a state and a non-state actor (8).

Despite all the potential that a successful upgrade might release, it is worth keeping in mind that for now the realities of the occupation will not change for the common people.

The Gaza conflict and intra-Palestinian disunity

Two weeks before the UN vote Israel launched a military offensive against Hamas with the targeted killing of the acting head of the organization's military wing, Ahmed al-Jabari, on 14 November, which temporarily overshadowed all considerations of the imminent status upgrade. Palestinian government sources implied that this was well in the interest of Israel and Hamas, the two parties waging war, who for different reasons objected to the initiative promoted by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), of which Fatah is a member.

Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PLO and president of the PA, accordingly voiced his suspicion that the Israeli government was deliberately trying to undermine the Palestinian efforts at the United Nations with the armed conflict in a statement on 16 November (9). In fact, the impending membership bid went largely unnoticed by the international and local press coverage in mid-November, which only slowly changed again after the declaration of a cease-fire on 21 November. Yet, Hamas, too, can be assumed to have had an interest in the escalation: they managed to present themselves as the true guardians of Palestinian resistance in the confrontation with Israel and gain additional ground in the domestic Palestinian political arena.

However, the military engagement also bore unexpected consequences for the endeavors of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. On the one hand, there were increased declarations of support on the international level: Argentina urged the United Nations to support the Palestinian bid in order to counter Abbas’ continuing marginalization during the fighting and strengthen his internal political position (10). On the other hand, despite intra-Palestinian disagreements there are now indications that the hostile Palestinian parties may use the momentum of the solidarity declarations in the wake of the Gaza conflict for a renewed attempt at national reconciliation, as evidenced, inter alia, by the reported support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad for Fatah’s upgrade bid (11).

Whether the schism existing between the two major Palestinian popular movements since 2007 can be overcome this time will become apparent in the days and weeks to come; that Fatah adhered to its UN bid despite massive internal and external pressure, however, is a success in itself, the consequences of which will start to emerge in a few days’ time.

Endnotes

(1) Negotiations Affairs Department (2012). Almost a Century without Our Rights: The Significance of November in the Palestinian Struggle for Freedom. Retrieved from: http://www.nad-plo.org/userfiles/file/OPED/almost_a_century.pdf (23.11.12).

(2)This includes the State of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority as well as the so called Middle Eastern Quartet made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations.

(3) However, the exact implications of the unilateral status upgrade for the Oslo Accords remain rather vague, particularly in view of prior and repeated violations of the treaties, especially by the Israeli side. Cf. Suciu, A. und Yehuda, L. (2011). Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: Possible Implications of the Recognition of Palestinian Statehood. Tel Aviv: The Association of Civil Rights in Israel.

(4) Der Standard (2012). Israel droht Palästinensern vor ihrem UNO-Antrag. 14 November. Retrieved from: http://derstandard.at/1350261358515/Israel-droht-Palaestinensern-vor-UNO-Antrag-der-Palaestinenser (19.11.12).

(5) Schult, C. (2012). Uno-Antrag von Abbas: Berlin sperrt sich gegen Aufwertung der Palästinenser. Spiegel Online, 12 November. Retrieved from: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/berlin-verhindert-diplomatische-aufwertung-der-palaestinenser-a-866639.html (14.11.12).

(6) Haaretz (2012). Palestinian envoy briefs China on UN bid and Gaza conflict. 22 November. Retrieved from: http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/palestinian-envoy-briefs-china-on-un-bid-and-gaza-conflict-1.479831 (22.11.12).

(7) For an extensive discussion of the legal and political implications of the Palestinian UN bid, cf. Dane, F. und Stettner, I. (2011). Ein Staat Palästina in den Vereinten Nationen? Voraussetzungen, Positionen und Erwartungen vor der VN-Generalversammlung. Berlin: KAS Auslandsinformationen, 8/2011, pp. 53-72.

(8) Ibid., pp. 71-72.

(9) Ma’an News Agency (2012). Abbas: Israel trying to undermine Palestinian UN vote. 16 November. Retrieved from: http://maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=538399 (21.11.12).

(10) Ma’an News Agency (2012). Argentinean president urges UN support to Abbas after Gaza conflict. 22 November. Retrieved from: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=540600 (22.11.12).

(11) Ma’an News Agency (2012). Fatah, Hamas urge unity at Gaza rallies. 22 November. Retrieved from: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=541065 (23.11.12).