A step closer to Palestine?
The UN General Assembly’s decision to upgrade Palestine’s UN status to a ‘non-member observer state’, along the same lines as the Vatican, is a symbolic, yet also important milestone in the Palestinians’ quest for statehood.
The overwhelming vote by the General Assembly in favour of this new status shows the international community is firmly behind a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those nations voting in favour of the resolution totalled 138, while 41 abstained and nine voted against.
Unfortunately, the European Union did not have a common position on this question, but a slight majority, 14, including Malta, voted in favour.
Only one EU member state, the Czech Republic, voted against, while the other 12, including the UK, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, abstained. Regrettably, the US and Canada voted against the resolution.
In practical terms, this development means that the Palestinians could now have access to a number of UN bodies, such as the International Criminal Court. This is something that has alarmed the Israeli Government which fears the Palestinians will now start a process of criminal proceedings at the ICC against senior Israeli officials over alleged war crimes.
We can also expect Israel, which strongly opposed the Palestinians’ bid for a new status, to become even more intransigent in its dealings with them. In fact, one day after the historic UN vote, Israel authorised the construction of 3,000 more housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It also announced that it would be speeding up the processing of 1,000 planning permissions in these territories.
Despite Israel’s knee-jerk reaction, I would still say that the Palestinians were right in applying for this UN upgrade, and the General Assembly did the right thing to grant it to them. Two decades of peace talks have failed to produce a permanent settlement and no direct negotiations have taken place between Israel and the Palestinians since 2010, largely due to the continual building of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israel will now have to acknowledge that it will be dealing with a recognised member of the international community, Palestine, which has additional rights. The UN change also allows the Palestinians to participate in General Assembly debates, which will raise their international profile.
The Palestinians’ status as a non-member observer state at the UN should also strengthen their hands in peace talks with Israel on crucial issues such as Jerusalem, the future of settlements, borders, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, water rights and security.
Furthermore, this massive vote in favour of the Palestinians should strengthen the hand of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, who has been losing ground to Hamas, the radical Islamist movement that runs Gaza, in recent years.
The war in Gaza, for example, marginalised Abbas to a certain extent, and placed Hamas in the limelight as the defender of Palestinians.
This latest move by the UN does not create a Palestinian state, but recognises it as such. It is a step in the right direction, but the path to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, of course, lies only in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, Israel’s continuous building of illegal settlements has put direct talks on hold for the past two years.
Here the US has a vital role to play. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the UN vote “unfortunate and counter-productive”, saying it put more obstacles on the path to peace.
The Obama administration has come out firmly on Israel’s side on the issue, so it should now exert pressure on Israel to return the favour and freeze the building of new settlements and the processing of new applications for buildings in the occupied territories.
President Barack Obama will not run for re-election in four years’ time and can therefore afford to play tough with Israel.
A comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, in the form of a two-state solution with security guarantees for Israel is in everybody’s interest.