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Palestine’s UN recognition bid: What now?

As 2011 ends, it is instructive to evaluate 12 months of Palestinian efforts for statehood. Overall, uncertainties revolve around the actual possibilities of achieving that dream. Tough and complex barriers remain ahead

Bassem Ossama, Saturday 31 Dec 2011
Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, holds a copy of the letter requesting Palestinian statehood as he speaks during the United Nations General Assembly September 23, 2011 at UN headquarters in New York.— (Photo: AFP)
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“The world needs to know there is a Palestinian people, a Palestinian cause. I hope the next step will be (full membership in) the UN.” These are the words of a 55-year-old Palestinian resident in Ramallah who said he was proud and glad to see the Palestinian flag flying at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

In September, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas handed a formal request to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, requesting Security Council approval for a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.

“The absence of Israel’s commitment to international law and previous UN resolutions, such as 242 and 194, does not indicate where we are heading; that is why we chose the UN path,” head of the political section in the Embassy of the State of Palestine in Egypt, Ahmed Mousa, said. He added that peace talks should be built on a prior Israeli decision of freezing settlement construction and acceptance of pre-1967 borders as “requirements” not “conditions”.

“Netanyahu had always offered peace talks, but he had never proposed a timeframe that can prove the willingness of his government to reach a feasible, compromised solution,” Emad Gad of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said.

The way to UN membership appeared to be unpaved. On October 31, UNESCO became the first UN agency to pronounce Palestine as a full member on a 107-14 vote with 15 abstentions. The Palestinians celebrated the diplomatic victory, considering it a step towards their UN recognition hope.

The Palestinian flag was raised above the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, despite stiff resistance from the United States and Israel.

On the day of the vote, the United States decided to halt its financial contributions to UNESCO, imposing huge pressures over the organisation as Washington bears 22 per cent of the total budget. One week later, the same decision was taken by Israel.

Pakinam Al-Sharkawi, political science professor at Cairo University, remarked: “The major US and Israeli concern is to guarantee the indecisiveness of the conflict, as a legally-constituted Palestinian state would inevitably lead to stability and actual unification of the Palestinian front.”

“Now Israel and American are emptying the cause of its ethnic and political content, and this is what they want,” she added.

Both sides claimed that backing the Palestinian scheme for a UN seat would ruin two decades of peaceful negotiations, for granting recognition to the Palestinians would enhance animosity against the Israelis, rather than cooperation with them, generating further obstacles in an already stalled peace process.

For Israel, regardless of cutting its annual $2 million contribution, the government took a series of punitive measures against the Palestinians, such as speeding up the settlement building process and freezing the transfer of tax monies to the PA.

Middle East professor in the British University in Egypt, Hisham Wahby, regards the Palestinian bid for UN recognition as “symbolic”, but added that it is an essential step towards influencing the international community.

“If Washington cut their financial contributions towards every UN body that recognises Palestine, this would shake its moral image in front of the whole world,” Wahby said.
The situation is not less complex in other UN arenas. On 9 November, a UN committee failed to reach consent on the issue. The report of the committee stipulated that it failed to make a unanimous recommendation to the UN Security Council. “The Palestinians have to create their own networks, as they fulfilled the legal requirements of a state,” ex-European Union ambassador in Egypt Klaus Ebermann said.

Palestinian President Abbas urged the European Union during a visit this month to support the Palestinian bid for full UN membership. “I hope the day will come when we will raise the flag of Palestine at the UN and with the support of the European Union,” he said.

The membership issue had apparently divided Security Council member states. Russia, China, Lebanon, Brazil, India, South Africa and probably Gabon and Nigeria would support the Palestinians, while the United States would veto.

Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Colombia and Bosnia would likely abstain, with Germany possibly voting against. The Palestinians, so far, have been incapable of securing the nine votes needed to pass a Security Council resolution.

The next step depends on the Palestinians, who chose to consult Arab leaders prior to new diplomatic or legal moves. They could request a Security Council vote, or make a new attempt in the Security Council in the New Year, even though their prospects of success are few.

Gad expects they will turn to the UN General Assembly. A General Assembly resolution recognising a Palestinian state would be a moral victory for the Palestinian cause, paving the way for UN membership eventually, perhaps.

Gad says that future Palestinian-Israeli peace talks would be held in a new and exceptional context: from an authority representing people under occupation and the occupying state, to talks between two countries, where one country occupies the other.

“Palestine’s UN bid for recognition may not perhaps be the end of the conflict; it is rather an important step and a pressure card in the long process of peace in the Middle East,” Pakinam said.

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