Another installment in the Middle East’s dramatic year of change will take place this week at the annual United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly in New York. Under pressure from its people, the Palestinian Authority is planning to apply for full membership of the UN as an independent state. This apparently bureaucratic procedure is less eye-catching than the “Arab Spring” uprisings but could have a significant effect on the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The Palestinian request for UN membership will first be made to the UN Security Council, the organisation’s paramount decision-making body. It will ask for recognition of Palestine based on two states, Israel and Palestine, divided along the lines of the internationally recognised, pre-1967 Arab-Israeli war, border and with a shared capital in Jerusalem. Not coincidentally, this is the outline solution that has long been promoted by the UN, USA, Russia, EU and several past Israeli governments. Despite this, at least one of the permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council, the US, has said that it will use its veto to refuse the Palestinians’ request for UN membership. If that happens, the Palestinians are then likely to make a request to the General Assembly, consisting of all of the UN’s member countries, for a lesser “Observer State” status. Given the broad support for the Palestinian cause across the world, this is a vote they would be almost certain to win.
The US government has explained that it will reject the Palestinians’ request to the Security Council because it does not support unilateral moves in the dispute and believes a solution will only come through the “peace process” negotiations between the two parties. But, sadly, the lack of progress in the peace process is exactly why the Palestinian Authority (the official body that has some governance powers over part of the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel) has come under so much pressure from its own people to proceed with its bid for statehood at the UN. The talks have been going on intermittently for over twenty years but have failed to produce a solution to the conflict that ends the Israeli occupation and gives the Palestinians control over their own lives. Many Palestinians have lost faith in the ability of the peace process to produce a satisfactory solution, unless the terms of the debate can be changed. As they see it, UN recognition of their statehood would strengthen their hand in any future negotiations by giving them equal status with Israel and clarifying the dispute as being about the illegal occupation of one state by another. Potentially, statehood would also give the Palestinians access to the full-range of international institutions, including the International Criminal Court, which could be used to investigate war crimes committed by the Israelis.
The Palestinian request for UN membership will first be made to the UN Security Council, the organisation’s paramount decision-making body.
The Palestinians’ loss of faith in the peace process has been compounded by their frustration with the US as an honest broker between them and the Israelis. For many Palestinians, any lingering belief in the US as a neutral intermediary was extinguished during the last attempt to get negotiations going in 2010, when the US failed to persuade the Israelis to make the relatively minor gesture of pausing their construction of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land whilst the talks got underway.
For its part, the hardline Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu has exacerbated the Palestinians’ discouragement about negotiations. Israel’s intransigent refusal to engage seriously in the peace process has begun to alienate even its staunchest allies, including in Europe. Its growing isolation has also been exacerbated by the Arab Spring. Israel has long lamented the lack of democracy in the Arab world but, for example, the fall of the cooperative Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt and the transition to democracy has meant that the interim Egyptian government has to take the views of its strongly pro-Palestinian people into account, with uncomfortable results for the Israelis. In addition, Israel has seen its former best friend in the region, the increasingly influential Turkey, turn against it following Israel’s refusal to offer even a muted apology for shooting dead 8 Turks on an aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government has claimed that the Palestinian bid for UN recognition is merely “symbolic” and “a waste of time”. Somewhat contrarily, though, it has let it be known that it will take all manner of drastic steps, such as withholding the Palestinian tax revenues it controls and on which Palestinian public services depend, should the bid proceed. It has also engaged in one of the most frantic diplomatic campaigns in recent General Assembly history, along with the US, in an attempt to block the Palestinians’ membership bid. Netanyahu’s latest step has been to call for renewed negotiations instead “in New York, that will continue in Jerusalem and Ramallah”. Given Netanyahu’s record, his apparent new-found commitment to talks is unlikely to convince many Palestinians, some of whom have noted that even this ostensible olive branch seems to contain a coded attempt to prejudge the talks by suggesting that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and Israel’s alone.
Critics of the Palestinian UN membership bid are correct in asserting that the move, whatever its outcome, will not bring any immediate practical benefit on the ground in the Occupied Territories. But the Palestinians believe that all of the frenzied activity in New York suggests that they are on to something. Despite their protestations to the contrary, the Israelis and Americans have clearly been shaken by the Palestinians’ actions. It is hard to believe that they have been roused to go to such lengths to prevent the bid purely, as they have claimed, because they do not think it will help the Palestinians’ cause overmuch. For the Palestinians, the most beneficial effect of their UN bid may be the confidence boost gained from seizing the initiative for once, instead of seeing themselves as powerless, oppressed people at the mercy of Israel and the US. The apparent success of groups such as “Palestine 194” (Palestine, if admitted, would be the 194thUN member state) in pushing for the UN membership bid, could reinforce the growing feeling amongst the Palestinian people, drawing on the experience of the “Arab Spring” efforts of their neighbours, that smart, peaceful actions designed to put pressure on governments are the best route to obtaining their rights.
All in all, it should be an interesting week in New York and the immediate aftermath may be turbulent for the Palestinians. But they believe that chucking a big stone into the global diplomatic pond will ultimately do more to further their cause than years of lobbing small rocks at Israeli soldiers ever did.
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