Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 26 September 2011

Palestinians win moral victory at UN

The Palestinian quest for statehood won a moral and political victory last week at the United Nations. The road to formal statehood at the UN and actual statehood on the ground will continue to be steeply uphill.


It has been a dramatic week in the arena of diplomatic politics.  The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had his day at the United Nations, striking a blow for Palestine to be recognised as a state.

"I don't believe anyone with a shred of conscience can reject our application for full admission in the United Nations," he said at the General Assembly as he waved a copy of the letter of application for statehood he had presented to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.  "The time has come."

He won standing ovations as well as a moral victory.  But actual statehood through the UN is less certain.

Within an hour, the Israeli Prime Minister made a strong attack on Abbas and his action, arguing Israel's case against the Palestinian bid, stressed Israel's security fears, and pleaded with Abbas meet with him immediately in the UN building to negotiate for peace.

His speech won a spattering of applause, compared to the bouts of lengthy and loud applause for Abbas, clearly showing where the sympathies of the majority of the UN members lie.

But the next steps will be uphill for the Palestinians.  Their application has already been given to the Security Council, which has the power to decide whether statehood is accepted or rejected.

The Council is expected to start meeting on this issue early this week, but it may be weeks before a decision is made.

The United States is backing Israel and has made clear it will veto the application if necessary.  Such a veto will not only make the US lose further credibility in the Arab world but also spark outrage from the Arab streets, as it would expose the superpower as being extremely biased instead of an honest broker.

The US is thus working overtime to persuade the other Council members not to vote for the Palestinians, so that it won't have to use its veto and stick out like a sore thumb.  Nine votes are needed out of 15 for the Palestinian application to succeed.

The Quartet comprising the US, European Union, Russia and the UN met on the same day (23 September) when Abbas addressed the General Assembly, and issued a statement calling for both sides to meet as soon as possible.   It also gave a time table, with a target to reach a peace deal within a year.

The Quartet's move was seen by some to be an alternative to the Palestinian's UN route to statehood.  But Abbas, on a plane home to Ramallah, gave the impression to reporters that he wasn't impressed at all by the Quartet move, which is too little, too late.

The road of bilateral talks with Israel, with the US government acting as mediator, has failed to bring a peace deal for the last two decades.  Instead, Israel has greatly expanded its settlements in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem.  Its extremely brutal bombing of Gaza a few years ago killed and injured thousands and turned Palestinian homes and buildings to rubble and shocked and outraged the world.

The Israeli aggression and settlement building in the midst of supposedly peace talks discredited Abbas and his administration, especially after the leakage by Al Jazeera and the Guardian of details of some of their negotiating positions, which some felt were capitulating to the Israelis.

Meanwhile hopes that US President Obama would be an honest broker after his initially stiff behaviour towards Israeli PM Netanyahu (and his proclamation that the settlements building must halt, and that a peace deal should be based on the pre 1967 borders) faded fast as the Israeli PM and lobbies succeeded in turning his position around.

So much so that Obama's speech at the UN last week was described as pathetic by veteran analyst Robert Fisk. The Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi could not believe what she heard from Obama.  "It sounded like the Palestinians were occupying Israel.  There wasn't one word of empathy for Palestinians.  He spoke only of the Israelis' troubles."

Just as bad, the US President scolded the Palestinians for demanding statehood from the UN.

So the chances that the Palestinian application will succeed at the Security Council is probably nil.  But the tide of public opinion and of wider diplomacy has turned and will continue to strengthen for the Palestinian cause.

Eventually, if the Palestinians cannot garner enough votes or the US exercises its veto at the Security Council, the Palestinians can still go to the General Assembly and win a vote

to upgrade its status from an observer entity to an observer state.  This will indirectly win them recognition of statehood.

The plight of the Palestinians is indeed pitiful and tragic, and their efforts deserve strong support.  Even though only a moral and political victory may come out of this, it may provide them more hope and more ways to continue their struggle.