Seth Wenig/AP/File
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in this Sept. 27 file photo. The Palestinians are seeking a global mandate for statehood at the United Nations this month.

Israel pushes back on Palestinian bid for new UN status

The Palestinians are seeking a global mandate for statehood at the United Nations. Israel warns the move would nullify the Oslo Accords.

With no progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in four years, Palestinians are seeking a global mandate for statehood at the United Nations. They hope the bid will revive momentum for a sovereign Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

If the Palestinians move forward, Israel is threatening to treat the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians as null and void. And Reuters is reporting that a draft document in Israel’s foreign ministry floats the option of “dismantling the Palestinian Authority” and “toppling” its president, Mahmoud Abbas. 

Here’s a briefing on what’s behind this dispute:

What is the Palestinian status in the UN?

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the official representative of the Palestinian people, has been an observer at the United Nations since 1974. Last year, it tried to gain membership, but the United States and other countries on the UN Security Council rejected the bid.

This year the PLO is seeking to become a nonmember observer state instead of just an "entity." This move, which does not require approval from the Security Council, has broad support among the UN's 193 members and is expected to come in the second half of this month.

If the PLO is granted that status, which is currently held only by the Vatican, Palestinians say it will represent a global acknowledgment of Palestine as a state.

Why are they pursuing this change in UN status?

"First of all, ... we want to exercise our right to self-determination," says Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department.

"Second, because we want to save the two-state solution," he adds. "Israel is destroying a two-state solution ... [such] that the prospects for what the international community defines as a just and lasting peace along 1967 borders may no longer be possible."

Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the number of Israelis living outside the 1967 borders has nearly doubled from 281,000 to more than 550,000, complicating the prospects of establishing a Palestinian state on that land. Palestinians have sought an Israeli settlement freeze before returning to the negotiating table, but Israel has refused. Many see the PLO's UN bid as a last-ditch effort.

Would the move have any practical effect?

Diana Buttu, an international human rights lawyer and former adviser to the PLO negotiating team, says it's symbolic. "While I hope that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] would use these international mechanisms to hold Israel accountable, from what I've seen and heard Abbas is doing this largely for symbolic reasons," she says.

Mr. Abu Eid, the PLO spokesman, begs to differ.

"If it was a symbolic step, I don't know why we are being fought the way we are now," he says. Israel is lobbying European countries to vote "no." The US has threatened to withhold desperately needed aid if the Palestinians go forward.

What would Palestinians gain?

The PLO hopes that a "yes" vote would change the dynamic – Israel as the militarily robust occupier, the Palestinians as its downtrodden subjects – to one of Israel versus a global mandate for Palestinian sovereignty.

Gaining the status of nonmember state could also open the door to other UN organizations, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), although membership is not automatic. That could allow the PLO to move ahead with plans to sue Israel for war crimes.

Why is Israel concerned?

Israel objects to the PLO bid because it circumvents the fundamental principle of the Oslo Accords – negotiation – to gain statehood without Israel's consent. It is concerned that the move and any accompanying lawsuits against Israel would make negotiations politically impossible.

"We're not concerned about the [ICC] suit in itself because they won't be able to stick on us all those accusations – with that we are quite confident," says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "But while the legal battle rages on, you can imagine all the sound and fury that will accompany it, all the poisonous discourse, [will] make an atmosphere that will disable any capacity of Palestinian leaders to talk [to Israeli negotiators]."

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