On Thursday, November 29, the 193-member United Nations General Assembly voted 138-9 (with 41 abstentions) to grant “non-member observer statehood” to Palestinians living in the West Bank of Israel.
The historic vote comes 65 years to the day that the United Nations partitioned what was then called Palestine, calling for both Jewish and Arab states to be established after the imminent expiration of the British mandatory regime of the region. The outraged Arabs then rejected the plan and soon started a war they eventually lost.
Following a failed bid to join the international body as a full member state in 2011 because of a lack of support in the UN Security Council, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas then submitted a downgraded request to the General Assembly for admission to the UN as a non-member observer state – the same status that the Vatican holds. Previously, the Palestine Liberation Organization only had “permanent observer” status.
The change allows the Palestinians to participate in General Assembly debates. It also improves their chances of joining UN agencies, which would make them eligible for loans from the International Monetary Fund and direct access to the International Criminal Court (ICC), although the process would be neither automatic nor guaranteed. If they are allowed to sign the ICC’s founding treaty known as the Rome Statute, the Palestinians hope prosecutors would investigate alleged “Israeli crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
Leading the opposition to the upgraded Palestinian statehood bid were the United States and Israel. In an 11th hour bid to persuade the Palestinian Authority to pull back from their UN statehood gambit, the U.S. State Department dispatched Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and U.S. Mideast peace envoy David Hale to New York on Wednesday, the day before the scheduled vote, for talks with PA President Abbas. Burns requested that Abbas jettison the idea and in exchange promised that President Obama would re-engage as a mediator in the stalled peace talks with Israel in 2013. According to Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas, the PA president said it was “too late.”
“We’ve been clear, we’ve been consistent with the Palestinians that we oppose observer state status in the General Assembly and this resolution. We made those points again. And the deputy secretary also reiterated that no one should be under any illusion that this resolution is going to produce the results that the Palestinians claim to seek, namely to have their own state living in peace next to Israel,” Secretary of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters. “We went up to make one more try to make our views known to President Abbas and to urge him to reconsider.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday told reporters the United States believes the Palestinians are going in the wrong direction to reach their goals. She stressed that the “path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York.”
Nuland said Congress may also impose financial penalties on the PA for the move. “This resolution is not going to take them closer to statehood. It does nothing to get them closer to statehood, and it may actually make the environment more difficult,” she said. “We’ve been clear all along with the Palestinians that we are seeking to get money for the Palestinian Authority released from the Congress, but that these kinds of things don’t make it easier, and that members of Congress are watching very closely.”
A senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem said Israel would not seek to cancel the Oslo peace accords as a punitive measure against the PA application to the UN, but it may consider imposing financial levies, such as collecting on a NIS 700 million debt the PA owes the Israel Electric Corporation.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestine Liberation Organization senior official, told a press conference last week that the Palestinians would go ahead with the move no matter the pressure, which she characterized as “blackmail.” “Some rights aren’t for sale,” Ashrawi said. “If Israel wants to destabilize the whole region, it can. We are talking to the Arab world about their support if Israel responds with financial measures, and the EU has indicated they will not stop their support to us.”
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said on Wednesday that by going to the UN, the Palestinians violate “both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations.”
The Palestinians argue that admission even as a non-member observer state at the UN will strengthen their hands in peace talks with Israel on core issues that divide them: the status of Jerusalem, the fate of the settlements, the precise location of borders, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, water rights and security arrangements. They present the step as necessary to protect their right to self-determination and a two-state solution.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released the following statement on Thursday in reaction to the United Nations vote: “This is a meaningless decision that will not change anything on the ground. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that there will be no establishment of a Palestinian state without a settlement that ensures the security of Israel’s citizens. He will not allow a base for Iranian terrorism to be established in Judea and Samaria, in addition to those that have already been established in Gaza and Lebanon. The way to peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah is in direct negotiations, without preconditions, and not in one-sided UN decisions. By going to the UN, the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel, and Israel will act accordingly.”
In his address to the UN General Assembly prior to the vote that took place at 3:00 pm on Thursday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said that, “The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine.” He also took the opportunity to excoriate Israel for its perceived role in the recent war in Gaza launched by Hamas terrorists. “The Israeli aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip has confirmed once again the urgent and pressing need to end the Israeli occupation and for our people to gain their freedom and independence. This aggression also confirms the Israeli government’s adherence to the policy of occupation, brute force and war, which in turn obliges the international community to shoulder its responsibilities towards the Palestinian people and towards peace.”
In response to Abbas’ speech, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office issued the following statement: “The world watched a defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the IDF and the citizens of Israel. Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner.”
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Thursday that “this is a day of historic defeat for Palestinians,” and called Abbas a “diplomatic terrorist.”
Also delivering remarks before the General Assembly was Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, who said, “Israel is a nation that never hesitates to defend itself, but will always extend its hand for peace.” He added that, “The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties 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.” Boldly asserting Israel’s legitimacy as the eternal Jewish state, Prosor declared, “As for the rights of Jewish people in this land, I have a simple message for those people gathered in the General Assembly today. No decision by the UN can break the 4,000 year old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”
With strong support from the developing world that comprises the majority of United Nations member countries, the Palestinian resolution was virtually assured of securing more than the requisite basic majority. Abbas’ strategy, however, has focused on amassing as many European “yes” votes as possible. To that end, diplomats say the PA had been concentrating its efforts on lobbying wealthy European states. “A strong showing in Europe will emphasize to Israel and the United States that the Palestinian Authority is widely seen as legitimate,” a Western envoy said on condition of anonymity. “It may also give Israel second thoughts about trying to bankrupt the Palestinians for something that is really symbolic.”
Currying favor with European nations has proven a highly successful tactic for Abbas, as such countries as Austria, Denmark, Norway, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Malta, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland all voted in favor of the Palestinian resolution. Other countries such as China, India, Russia and Japan were also among those countries that voted in favor. Britain, Australia and Germany were among the 41 countries that abstained. The only European country that voted against the resolution was the Czech Republic, along with the United States, Israel, Canada, Panama, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.
French President Francois Hollande called for the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the PA “without conditions and as quickly as possible.” “Direct dialogue is in effect the only way to find a definitive end to this conflict. France is ready to contribute to it, as a friend, both of Israel and of Palestine,” he said.
Subsequent to the UN vote, Palestinians erupted in wild celebrations on Thursday night throughout the West Bank and Gaza, hugging each other, setting off fireworks and chanting “G-d is great.”
“It’s a great feeling to have a state, even if in name only,” said civil servant Mohammed Srour, 28, standing in a flag-waving crowd of more than 2,000 packed into a square in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “The most beautiful dream of any man is to have an independent state, particularly for us Palestinians who have lived under occupation for a long time.”
The warm embrace by the international community could also help Abbas restore some of his domestic standing, which has been eroded by years of standstill in the peace efforts. Hamas, entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after purportedly “holding its own” during the recent Israeli offensive on terrorist targets there earlier this month.
After initially criticizing the UN bid as an empty gesture, Hamas has come around to supporting the popular move, with reservations. Palestinians in the coastal strip of Gaza also celebrated the vote, though on a smaller scale than the massive eruption of joy in the streets after last week’s cease-fire deal with Israel. Some set off fireworks, others shot in the air, and children in the streets cheered and flashed victory signs. “Today is a big joy for all of us,” Abu Yazan, a 29-year-old Abbas supporter, said. Izzat Rishaq, a senior Hamas figure in exile, said he welcomed the UN vote as an achievement, but added that Hamas counts on “heroic resistance” to create a Palestinian state, thus underscoring the group’s deep ideological rift with Abbas.
As an initial Israeli response to the decision by the UN, on Friday, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the authorized construction of 3,000 new homes and planning for thousands more in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. The announcement drew sharp denunciations from Palestinian officials and a rebuke from Washington, which had backed Israel at the United Nations. Critics said planned building near Jerusalem would cut links between the northern and southern West Bank, seriously damaging prospects for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
“These actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “We reiterate our long-standing opposition to settlement activity and East Jerusalem construction and announcements. Direct negotiations remain our goal, and we encourage all parties to take steps to make that goal easier to achieve,” he added.
A spokesman for Netanyahu’s office did not specify where the 3,000 homes would be built, but said the areas for additional “planning and zoning” of housing would include the large Israeli settlement concentrations in the West Bank, among them the town of Maaleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and an area connecting it to the city, known as E-1.
According to Israeli media reports, the Obama administration had warned Netanyahu prior to the UN vote against a harsh response, and against advancing construction in the E-1 zone.
As a result of the Israeli intentions to proceed with construction of new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, such countries as the UK, France, Spain, Denmark and Sweden summoned their Israeli ambassadors in protest over the plans. Russia, Germany and the UN have also objected to the Israeli plans, and the U.S. has called on Israel to “reconsider” its decision. “We urge Israeli leaders to reconsider these unilateral decisions and exercise restraint as these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier warned that the E1 plans would have to be rescinded. “It would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution,” Ban said.
Remaining defiant, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said through a spokesman that, “Israel will continue to stand by its vital interests, even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision that was made.”
In a move that could raise tensions even higher, Israel on Monday said it would press ahead with plans to build another 1,600 settler homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. The controversial plan caused a diplomatic rift between Israel and Washington when it was first approved during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in March 2010.
Israel’s Minister of Environmental Protection, Gilad Erdan, said that after the UN vote on Palestinian status, Israel had no choice but to “initiate what is legitimate and what strategically strengthens the state of Israel”.
“What strategically strengthens the state of Israel is not just utterances and journalistic briefings to this or that media outlet. What strengthens Israel is that it has a Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria and a strong military that protects the area,” Erdan said.