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United Nations member countries voted overwhelmingly to change the Palestinian status from an observer to a non-member observer state yesterday, but how this will play out in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and prospects for peace, is still an open question.
Held on the 65th anniversary of the “birth” of Israel – when the UN voted to partition the British mandate of Palestine into one Jewish state and one Arab state – there is no question that yesterday’s vote was symbolic for Palestinians and their supporters, according to The New York Times. The vote passed 138 to 9, with 41 states abstaining.
"The General Assembly is being asked today to issue the birth certificate of Palestine," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in his speech before the vote.
The new UN status doesn’t change borders, or give Palestinians control of “their borders, airspace or trade”; they still have “separate and competing governments in Gaza and the West Bank, and they have no unified army or police,” according to CBS News.
But it does grant Palestinian officials greater tools to “challenge Israel in international legal forums for its occupation activities in the West Bank, including settlement-building, and it helped bolster the Palestinian Authority, weakened after eight days of battle between its rival Hamas and Israel,” reports The New York Times.
In the lead-up to the vote, world headlines showed the mix of emotion surrounding the UN vote. In the Palestinian territories, hope was evident. The Arabic daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida had a map on its front page showing how UN member countries voted for the Palestinian bid for full membership to UNESCO in 2011, and a headline that read “Palestine the state …Tonight.”
In the United States, one of the most outspoken against the bid, the tone was different. Headlines ranged from "Israel: UN can't break 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and land of Israel" to "New York Pols: U.N. Vote On Palestine A 'Distraction' And 'Mistake'." The Washington Post's headline read: "Israel braces for Palestinian victory in UN status vote", and The Christian Science Monitor asked, "Who backs Palestine UN bid? Ehud Olmert, among others."
Directly following the vote, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice said, "Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path of peace…. Today's grand pronouncements will soon fade and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded."
According to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, “The Palestinian Authority foreign ministry said Thursday it would re-evaluate ties with countries that oppose Palestine's bid to upgrade its status at the UN.”
Even with the vote secured, uncertainty prevails about how this affects Palestinian-Israeli relations, as well as those between President Abbas’s administration and the Hamas movement in Gaza.
So weak has his administration become, especially in contrast to its rival, the Gaza-based Hamas movement, that some governments, such as Britain, are considering voting for the resolution, even though they oppose it in principle, out of fear that the authority is fading into irrelevance. Israel, too, appears to have toned down its plans for reacting, with officials saying they will wait and see what Mr. Abbas does after the vote.
The United Kingdom abstained from casting a vote in the end.
Kenneth Bandler, the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations, wrote in a commentary for Fox News that Abbas’s UN bid distracted from the threat of Hamas:
Upgrading the status of Palestine at the U.N. will be a transitory victory for an increasingly beleaguered Abbas. It is an unhelpful diversion from the reality on the ground, the growing danger of a terrorist regime ensconced in Gaza that threatens Israel and any Palestinian who aspires to achieve sustainable peace.
And many walked the line that the Palestinian win was a bad omen for progress and peace with Israel.
In Australia, opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop echoed the sentiments of many of the nine countries that voted against the resolution (those included the US, Israel, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama), and the 41 who abstained, which includes Australia.
“I do not believe that passing this vote will resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, in fact it could well cause an escalation of the conflict or prolong the situation by taking it into the realm of the international court,” Ms. Bishop said, according to the Australian newspaper.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of spreading "mendacious propaganda" against Israel, and said the vote “won't change anything on the ground … It won't advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off," reports CBS.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Robert M. Danin echoed that sentiment, writing that, “The fundamental problem with Abbas’ approach is that rather than encourage such talks, his U.N. gambit is more likely to delay, if not undermine, the prospects for negotiations that would lead to genuine Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel anytime in the immediate future.” However, Mr. Danin notes:
Given all the downsides of pursuing this statehood gambit, why is Abbas moving forward with this less than airtight strategy? Clearly, he calculates that the costs of inaction are even greater than all the moves’ inherent risks. With Hamas having just confronted Israel with short and medium term missiles, backing down from the diplomatic effort he has pursued over the year and a half, could be politically suicidal. … Such an accomplishment is likely to be pyrrhic and short lived. The challenge then will be to prevent the action in New York from further damaging the prospects for a more coherent approach that could lead to a lasting peace between Israel and a genuine Palestinian state.
But others, like Yehudit Oppenheimer, the executive director of Ir Amim, an NGO dedicated to establishing an “equitable and stable Jerusalem with a negotiated political future” believe the Palestinian bid is “not an anti-Israeli step.” Mr. Oppenheimer wrote in Haaretz that:
In the wake of its leaders' insistence that Israel's calls for a return to negotiations have gone unheeded, the Israeli public, most of which aspires to peace, has stopped believing in the possibility of a solution, and for that reason doesn't press those leaders to strive toward one. What happened to those leaders is what often happens in a prolonged conflict: They are gradually assuming the image of the "other" that they themselves created. It is the Israeli leadership that has stopped being a partner to a solution.
The connection between the retirement of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian initiative at the UN could mark the advent of new paradigms, something that is as vital for Israel as it is for the Palestinians. As opposed to the impression created in Israel, the Palestinian move is not an anti-Israeli step, but rather a rational measure for promoting the two-state solution delineated by the outlines of the Oslo Accords, which is acceptable to the public on both sides, and to which Israeli leaders, including those from the right, have already agreed in the past.
The initiative is based on a desire for a final-status solution, in which a Palestinian state would exist side by side with the State of Israel - a vision to which all of Israel's leaders have committed themselves in the past decade. The political vacuum that gave rise to the initiative is not a decree of fate. A smart Israeli leadership can and must embrace the initiative in a meaningful way. That is what the Israeli public should demand of its leaders.