The Palestinian Authority will formally submit its bid for full membership in the United Nations on September 20. This follows consultations in July and at least four rounds of negotiations between President Shimon Peres of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestine Authority.
The Palestinian membership bid will go first to the Security Council and is expected to receive firm majority support. The leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had previously announced that mass marches would be held in the West Bank that day in support of UN recognition.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office called the UN bid “expected but regrettable,” adding that it seems to indicate Abbas has decided to avoid direct negotiations with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes only direct negotiations, rather than unilateral decisions, can advance the peace process.
The Arab “star” seems to be in the ascendancy with Middle East events leading towards a multi-national alliance, and next month, Arab members will be at helm of UN bodies with Lebanon holding the rotating presidency of the Security Council, and Qatar as chairman of the General Assembly.
President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to upgrade the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations, despite U.S. and Israeli opposition, signals a bolder approach. But Palestinians are divided on the merits of the diplomatic offensive.
In the West Bank, Abbas’ Fatah movement bills it as a turning point in the Palestinian struggle, while in Gaza, a politician from rival Islamist Hamas dismissed it as hot air. Reconciliation between Abbas’ West Bank administration and Hamas in Gaza is seen as vital for mobilizing popular support behind the September initiative and, more broadly, any new Palestinian strategy.
Israel is wary. The Palestinians will likely emerge from September’s General Assembly meeting with a U.N. status upgrade that will give them access to dozens of U.N. agencies. But talk in Israel of a looming “diplomatic tsunami” has subsided.
Abbas’ Plan A — to secure full U.N. membership for Palestine — is destined to fail. The United States, which has veto power in the Security Council, is expected to oppose a move viewed in Washington as unhelpful to its Middle East diplomacy.
Plan B, as outlined by Palestinian officials, is to ask the General Assembly to upgrade Palestine to a non-member state from its current status as an observer. That would not need Security Council approval and elevate the Palestinians’ U.N. status to that of the Vatican. This present move is largely of symbolic value and George Giacaman, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank comments: “If the Palestinian Authority has a plan for after September, it hasn’t announced it.”
But it will produce some tangible results, giving the Palestinians access to U.N. agencies and potentially allowing them direct recourse to the International Criminal Court, where they could pursue cases against Israel.
Failed Peace Talks
In the July 11th meeting to consider the issues involved, the Quartet (EU, US, Russia, UN) could not even issue a joint statement afterward, so big is the gap between the parties.
At a press conference prior to the Quartet, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded uneasy at the prospect of the UN vote on Palestinian independence, in the absence of a political settlement. She said that the right path to follow was that of a negotiated peace agreement leading to independence. “What we strongly advocate is a return to negotiations, because a resolution, a statement, an assertion is not an agreement”.
But a return to talks (as we all suspected) achieved nothing.
Now, at the 66th UN General Assembly, opening on 13 September, the request for recognition of a Palestinian state will test loyalties and political policies on every side.
In the EU ten states are sceptical, including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. Britain is likely to abstain, along with the US. Other EU member states more supportive of the Palestinian approach, including France, Spain, Ireland, Sweden and Portugal.
Unity is more important?
Europe is very keen to avoid the appearance of disunity, given the recent instability over the Euro. A less ambitious request by the Palestinians could make it easier for the 27 EU members to reach a compromise. For example, the Palestinians could seek a status similar to the Vatican’s permanent observer status, or adopt the solution of the World Bank and IMF, which consider Palestine “ready for independence,” or make recognition of the state of Palestine contingent on a resumption of the peace talks.
Meeting in Council, on 18 July, the EU’s foreign ministers urged the Israelis and Palestinians to “show the highest sense of responsibility and to resume direct and substantive talks,” read their conclusions. United in their conviction of the need to rekindle the peace process and to move towards a “two-state solution,” the 27 ministers abstained from mentioning the planned request for recognition of the Palestinian state at the 66th United Nations General Assembly because “such recognition may interfere strongly with the Union’s capacity to speak with a single voice”.
Palestinians and the U.N.
For years, the two sides have been urged to reach a negotiated solution — President Obama called for a peace deal by September — but the consequences of stalemate could be profoundly damaging for all involved.
Any UN agreement would be in name only. After the initial exhilaration, Palestinians would be even more alienated, while extremists would try to exploit that disaffection.
The best way is indeed serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, but they are not talking. All share blame for the stalemate. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has used any excuse he can find (regional turmoil, the weakness of his coalition government) to avoid negotiations. He has resisted President Obama’s prodding because the President’s call for a return to the 1967 borders was clearly unacceptable and unworkable.
And Arab leaders haven’t given the Israelis any incentive to compromise. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, seemed to give up on diplomacy when Mr. Obama could not deliver a promised settlement freeze. We see no sign that he has thought even one step beyond the U.N. vote.
With the September deadline approaching, the Obama administration is back in the business of incremental diplomacy. The White House is working with Israel and the Quartet on a statement setting out parameters for negotiations but as long as the deal is exactly as before (a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps) there will be no forward movement. As we have already seen, Europe is more interested in appearing to speak and act as one, than in achieving a workable solution.
With the September General Assembly drawing closer, what will happen next is anybody’s guess. But the consequences could be grave.
Nabil Abu Rudeima, spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “What is happening across the Arab world has changed everything, there is even a Jewish Spring happening now. It is time for the United States to accept the idea [of a UN-approved Palestinian state]. It would be embarrassing for them if they do not. As long as Israel’s settlement activities continue and as long as Israel refuses to accept the 1967 borders, after 60 years of occupation we have no other choice but to turn to the international community. We are not declaring war. We are applying to the United Nations.”
And if the United Nations refuse to act – what then is the alternative?
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