Europeans bolster Palestinian bid at the UN

Support from the Europeans for Palestinian non-member 'state' status may derive partly from concern that Palestinians would view missiles, not diplomacy, as the way to sway Israel.

Ammar Awad/REUTERS
A Palestinian gestures during a rally in the West Bank city of Hebron, supporting the resolution that would change the Palestinian Authority's United Nations observer status from "entity" to "non-member state" November 29, 2012.

A week after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appeared all but forgotten in the wake of the Gaza conflict, his bid to gain a global mandate for statehood at the United Nations today has gained momentum.

At least 150 of the United Nations’s 193 members, including France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, and possibly even Britain, are expected to vote in favor of upgrading the Palestine Liberation Organization’s status to a non-member “state,” instead of a mere “observer.” And Germany, which many expected to be a sure "no" vote, announced today that it would abstain. 

The upgrade, while largely symbolic, could give the PLO firmer footing on the international stage to push for a sovereign state alongside Israel

The last-minute tide of international support, particularly from European countries, may have derived in part from concern that Palestinians would walk away from last week’s Gaza conflict with the impression that missiles, not diplomacy, are the way to get Israeli concessions. As part of the Nov. 21 cease-fire agreement, Israel agreed in principle to opening the crossings into Gaza, potentially easing the restrictions on goods and freedom of movement that Israel imposed when Hamas won elections in 2006.

“The cease-fire definitely strengthened Hamas. It looks as if the Hamas managed to get concessions on the siege and this was through missiles … while [Abbas] is sitting aside quietly,” says veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, now retired. “So it’s definitely the wish of Europeans to show that through diplomacy you can also gain achievements, not only through missiles.”

This line of reasoning also provided a “wonderful excuse” for European countries, which have traditionally backed Palestinian statehood but have faced strong pressure from Israel to vote against the UN bid, he adds.

Now they can say, “What can we do? Your war over there in Gaza isolated … [Abbas] to the extent that now we have to come to his help,” says Mr. Liel, noting that a number of European countries would have voted in favor of the bid even without such cover.

Symbolic date

Today’s vote comes on the 65th anniversary of the UN vote to partition historic Palestine into two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Israel accepted the offer and declared independence six months later, but Arab leaders in Palestine and the region rejected it and fighting broke out between Zionists and Arabs, which lasted until 1949. The 1949 armistice lines, also referred to as the Green Line or the 1967 borders, prevailed up until the 1967 war between Israel and its neighbors.

Abbas, in a rare interview on Israeli TV last year, said it had been a mistake for the Arab world to reject the 1947 partition plan, which would have given the Palestinians far more land than they have today. In 1988, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat accepted a state based on the 1967 lines, which amounts to 22 percent of historic Palestine, but such a state has yet to be negotiated.

Peace talks have been stalled for two years, with Palestinians refusing to come back to the table until Israel again freezes the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, increasingly encroaching on the territory intended for a Palestinian state.

Israel, which has repeatedly invited the Palestinians to resume negotiations with no preconditions, opposes the UN bid as a unilateral move that is not in the spirit of peacemaking. Two key Israeli concerns are the state’s ability to maintain security under any eventual peace deal, and a fear that Palestinians will try to use a state along 1967 borders as a springboard for reestablishing sovereignty over all of historic Palestine.

“None of these vital interests, these vital interests of peace, none of them appear in the resolution that will be put forward before the General Assembly today and that is why Israel cannot accept it,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, speaking at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. “The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties directly; through valid negotiations between themselves, and not through UN resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests. And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.”

Financial threats

Israel, which collects tax revenues on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, has threatened to punish the Palestinian leadership financially if it goes ahead with the UN vote. The US, which gives roughly half a billion dollars per year to the cash-strapped PA, has also threatened to withhold aid. (For more on Israel's push against the UN bid, read our Monitor briefing.)

But Palestinians, who see few other viable options for gaining leverage over Israel, say that their right to self-determination is not up for negotiation. Their resolution does call, however, for negotiation on all outstanding core issues – including security, borders, Palestinian refugees, and more – to be resolved according to previous UN resolutions, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, and the Quartet road map.

“Israeli behavior is what is mine is mine, and what is yours is up to negotiation,” says Xavier Abu Eid of the PLO’s negotiation affairs department. But given the expansion of Israeli settlements, which are turning the West Bank into a piece of Swiss cheese unsuitable for establishing a state, the Palestinians can’t afford to wait much longer.

“If you stole my apple and the whole world says that you stole my apple, and even you say that this apple may not be yours,” says Mr. Abu Eid, referring to the Israelis, “and you are telling me, yes, I want to give your apple back, but you are eating my apple … by the time that you decide to give me back my apple, I am not going to have anything. It will be too late."

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