Palestinians win upgrade to 'state ' at UN. What does that change?

The UN General Assembly's 138-to-9 vote officially put 'Palestine' together with 'state' for the first time. But it appeared to offer little practical change. Even Palestinians called it part of a 'process.'

Kathy Willens/AP
Members of the Palestinian delegation react as they surround Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (c.) who applauds during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly after a vote on a resolution on the issue of upgrading the Palestinian Authority's status to non-member observer state passed in the United Nations in New York, Thursday.

The Palestinian mission at the United Nations won an upgrade from an “entity” to a “state” – albeit one with nonvoting observer status – in a lopsided vote in the General Assembly Thursday.

The 138-to-9 vote, with 41 abstentions, put Palestinians front and center on the international stage for the second time in two weeks, following the recent fighting between Israel and the Palestinians of Hamas-ruled Gaza. The vote also, for the first time, officially puts “Palestine” together with the word “state,” giving Palestinians the same status at the UN held by the Vatican.

In a speech to the General Assembly in New York before the vote, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the status upgrade the “birth certificate of Palestine” and said it represented “the last chance to save the two-state solution” for the Palestinians and Israel.

The timing of the vote was suffused with historical significance, since it fell on the 65th anniversary of the General Assembly’s vote on Nov. 29, 1947, to partition British-ruled Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.   

But the UN decision, opposed by Israel and the United States appeared to offer little immediate or practical change, with even Palestinian leaders emphasizing the promise of the status change.

“Now that we have state status, it’s not a miraculous transformation,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, “but it begins a process.”

The strong backing for enhanced Palestinian status, including from a large number of European countries, reflected a widespread desire to boost the fortunes of Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority at a moment when the militant Hamas is enjoying newfound support, particularly among Arab countries. Supporters of the initiative said it would enhance chances for peace in the region.

But Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Proser, told the Assembly before the vote that the bid “doesn’t advance peace – it pushes it backwards” by circumventing negotiations between the parties.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the vote “changes nothing.”

“Peace can only be achieved one way,” he said, “through direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, and not through one-sided decisions at the UN that totally ignore Israel’s vital security needs.” 

But other Israeli officials suggested Israel would not sit by and would take action in response to what they said was a violation of the Palestinians’ international obligations.

In Washington, some members of Congress were already gearing up to push for funding cuts to both the Palestinians and the UN.

In the Senate, one proposed amendment to the defense authorization bill currently under debate would deny the Palestinian Authority any US assistance if the PA decided to use its enhanced status to take claims against Israel to the International Criminal Court – an institution it would have access to as a UN observer state. Another proposed amendment, authored by Republican senators, would cut Palestinian and UN funding in the event of enhanced UN status – and would also cut aid to any countries that voted for the change.

Opponents of any cuts in US funding to the Palestinian Authority say such action would ultimately benefit Hamas by punishing those Palestinians – such as West Bank Palestinian security forces – who cooperate with Israel and as a result enhance its security.

“These plainly non-germane amendments gravely threaten Israeli security and essential US interests by hobbling the viability of the Palestinian Authority to the benefit of Hamas and other extremists,” the J Street “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group said in a statement.

Congressional supporters of retaliation for the new “state” status view the Palestinian initiative as an attempt to unilaterally bypass negotiations with Israel to achieve statehood. But Palestinian leaders like Dr. Ashrawi, who spoke from Ramallah on a conference call with reporters arranged by Washington’s Institute for Middle East Understanding, say Palestinians acted because they gained nothing from over 20 years of negotiations.

“This does not contradict or conflict with negotiations,” she said, describing the new status as “a stand against nonproductive and counterproductive negotiations.” 

Abbas suggested before Thursday’s vote that enhanced status could open the way to direct talks with Israel. That was taken by some Middle East analysts as a hint that Abbas might drop his “preconditions” for direct talks, which have included a freeze on Israeli settlement construction on occupied Palestinian lands.

But in her comments Thursday, Ashrawi indicated the ball would still be in Israel’s court to pave the way for a return to negotiations – which she said would have to have set parameters and a fixed timeline.

Ashrawi also said that the first priority for Palestinians after Thursday’s vote would be reconciliation between Hamas and the West Bank-ruling Fatah. She lauded as a “very heartening” sign of “unity” the support Hamas leaders threw behind the UN status initiative.

As for threats to Palestinian financing over Thursday’s vote, Ashrawi said Palestinian leaders did not welcome any cuts, but had nevertheless put out feelers to sympathetic Arab countries about a possible “safety net” of emergency funding in the event of monetary reprisals.

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