Palestinians push for elevated UN status: Did Gaza conflict help?

Some nations are warming to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's bid for enhanced UN status. After the Gaza conflict, they see the moderate Abbas as a counterweight to Hamas.

John Minchillo/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrives at the United Nations Plaza Hotel Tuesday in New York.

The United Nations is poised to give Palestinians enhanced status in its General Assembly Thursday – despite intense opposition from the United States and Israel – partly in an attempt to head off the rise of Hamas after the recent Gaza missile conflict.

The Palestinian bid for nonmember observer status has long been expected to succeed, because a majority of the General Assembly’s 193 voting members support Palestinian statehood. But a number of countries are warming to the UN bid following the fighting between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist organization that governs Gaza. They see the vote as a way to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is behind the UN effort and who is seen as a moderate counterweight to Hamas.

France, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, and other Western European nations have announced in recent days they will vote in favor. Even Britain, which once opposed the move, now says it will abstain in the vote – even as it leaves the door open to voting in favor if the Palestinians make last-minute concessions that the government of Prime Minister David Cameron seeks.

As a nonmember observer state – akin to the UN status the Vatican holds – Palestine would not be a voting member of the General Assembly, but would have the right to apply for membership in UN legal institutions, including the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

It’s that eventuality – and the prospect of Palestine seeking to sue Israel over settlement construction or other issues it sees as violations of international law – that prompted Israeli and American opposition. Indeed, Prime Minister Cameron's condition for a "yes" vote is a commitment from the Palestinians not to seek membership in judicial institutions.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated US opposition to the Palestinian UN bid last week, insisting that negotiations with Israel are the only means of achieving meaningful statehood. This week the US publicly called the UN move a “mistake.”

“We share the concern that we have not been able to move forward” in negotiations for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. “It is in that spirit that we have been encouraging President Abbas to come to the negotiating table with the Israelis without preconditions. That’s the way to take this forward,” she added, “not in the GA,” the General Assembly.

Israel remains opposed to the UN bid, but it has tempered its once ferocious opposition and in recent days has portrayed the vote as inconsequential – a shift that reflects Israel's desire not to alienate Western countries that vote for the initiative.

For months, Israel warned of dire consequences for Abbas and his Palestinian Authority if they moved ahead on the UN bid – threatening even to nullify the Oslo Accords and to topple the PA leadership. But on Wednesday, Israeli officials played down those earlier threats, saying the Israeli government would not respond to a successful UN vote by canceling any agreements with the Palestinians, according to wire reports. 

The situation in Gaza could partly explain Israel's softening stance, too. Even some pro-Israel analysts say it would not have served Israel’s purposes to continue to threaten Abbas and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank just as Hamas is seeing its status enhanced, particularly among Arab countries.

This calmer stance is the correct one, some analysts say. The right response was “for Israel to shrug its shoulders and say, ‘Let Abbas go and do what you want, it’s not really going to bring you a state,’ ” said Robert Malley, Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group, in remarks this week at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Mr. Malley, whose work has allowed for close knowledge of Abbas, said a unilateral step like going to the UN is “not who he is, but he’s been forced to go there, seeing no alternative.”

Calling Abbas’s UN bid “an act of survival,” Malley described it as “the most moderate expression of a general Palestinian frustration.”

The UN vote Thursday in favor of an “expression of a general Palestinian frustration” is likely to be all the more lopsided because it comes just days after rockets launched by the more militant Palestinians of Hamas were sailing toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

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