Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 19 September 2011

Palestinian quest for a state goes to the UN

High drama is expected at the United Nations this week as the Palestinians take their quest for statehood to the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.  It also signifies their loss of hope in the route of negotiations with Israel.


This week the Palestinians will take a big new step in their struggle to having the world recognize that they have their own state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will speak at the United Nations in New York and request recognition from UN members that Palestine is a state. He has at least two options on how to make this request.

Option 1 is to ask the Security Council to grant Palestine full membership of the United Nations.  The drawback is that the United States is almost certain to veto this request, in defence of Israel’s interests.

Option 2 is for the General Assembly to adopt a decision to upgrade the position of Palestine to the status of a non-member observer state.   Indirectly, this would mean Palestine is acknowledged as a state.  It would be entitled to participate in many of the UN’s agencies and Conventions.

Last Friday, Abbas announced he had decided on Option 1, thereby openly challenging the US to take a stand.  If the US exercises its veto, it would be exposed as an opponent, and its popularity in the Arab region will deteriorate further.

Abbas could then still take Option 2, and request for a vote in the General Assembly to obtain the enhanced observer status, one which would nevertheless recognize Palestine as a state.  A large majority is expected to vote for the Palestinians.

The Palestinian move at the UN is going ahead despite pleas from the United States and threats from Israel. The two countries warned that doing so would set back Israel-Palestinian negotiations for many years.

But it is precisely because the many past years of negotiations have gone nowhere and obtained nothing but frustration after frustration for the Palestinians that they have decided to move the process to the UN.

It is a sign of the Palestinians’ total loss of confidence in Israel as a negotiating partner, and in the US leadership that it can stand up to Israel and be an honest broker for a just solution.

The Palestinian Authority leaders have already bent backwards in seeking a deal with Israel, but in return seen no progress in ending the occupation but instead a continued increase in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

The US President Barrack Obama had first given hope that he would be tougher on Israel. He demanded the end of new settlement construction, and a deal on the basis of the borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israel war.

However, facing hostile reaction from both Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and the pro-Israeli lobbies in the US including in Congress, Obama has stopped active involvement in the peace efforts.  Instead, Netanyahu appears to have gained the upper hand over Obama, getting ovations during his speech at the US Congress some months ago.

With negotiations coming to an end, and the disappearance of all hopes for any future progress in that route, the Palestinian Authority decided to seek broad support of the world through the UN route.

The moment seems ripe, as the international mood has swung significantly and perhaps decisively in the Palestinians’ favour.

Israel has lost the great support of its two traditional allies in the region.  The Arab Spring swept Egyptian President Mubarak from power, and the interim government is more in tune with popular sentiments.

Those sentiments were evident last week, when an Egyptian crowd stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing the Ambassador and staff to flee from the country.

Turkey, the other ally, has dramatically turned around following the 2008 Israeli blitz on Gaza a couple of years ago, and the 2010 Israeli attack on a Turkish ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza,  which killed 9 Turkish  citizens.

Turkey downgraded relations with Israel and expelled the Israeli Ambassador.  The Turkish premier Recap Tayyip Erdogan gave a rousing speech to Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo last week, declaring that supporting the Palestinian request for statehood was an obligation and that the Palestinian flag must fly high at the UN.

Many prominent citizens within Europe and even the US have also spoken up.  Former Finnish President and Nobel laurette Martti Ahtisaari and the European Commission’s former foreign policy chief Javier Solana published an article on ten reasons why European countries should vote in favour of the Palestinians in the UN.

And former US President Jimmy Carter has also written on how Obama’s call for settlements freeze and a peace deal based on pre-1967 borders were rejected by Israel, and why the subsequent withdrawal of the US from the peace process and US policy were interpreted by Palestinians and other Arabs as “acquiescing on the occupation and biased against them.”

According to Carter, the UN vote in favour of Palestinian statehood should be followed by a new attempt by Europe, the US and the UN to mediate in renewed talks between Israel and Palestinians.  The alternative to this new effort will be “an expansion of hopelessness, animosity and probable violence.”

An IPS article by the veteran observer of the UN scene, Thalif Dean, gives a broad analysis of the Palestinian move.

It quotes Mouin Rabbani of the Institute for Palestine Studies as saying that two decades of negotiations have achieved nothing except further consolidation of Israeli control over the occupied territories, in large part because of consistent US support for Israeli impunity.

“The era in which the US and other Western powers profess support for the principle of Palestinian statehood while thoroughly undermining it in practice must come to an end,” says Rabbani.  “Supporting a Palestinian state provided none is established simply won’t do anymore.

“It is therefore high time for an alternative and more effective approach to resolve this conflict.  Given the failure of bilateral diplomacy, returning the question of Palestine to the multilateral forum of the UN is an essential first step in an alternative and more effective.”

Next week, as the Palestinian issue moves centre stage to the UN, Palestinians plan to hold peaceful marches and rallies in the occupied territories to show support.  It remains to be seen how the drama unfolds at the UN, and what happens after.