UN votes to upgrade Palestinian status

Overwhelming majority of states vote to give Palestinians non-member observer status, despite Israeli criticism.

The United Nations General Assembly has voted in favour of upgrading the Palestinians status to that of a non-member observer state.

The vote was taken at a meeting of the body in New York, with 138 countries voting in favour of the upgrade. Nine countries voted against it, and 41 others abstained.

Thousands of Palestinians gathered across the West Bank and Gaza to demonstrate their support for the fresh attempt by President Mahmoud Abbas to secure the status.

Palestinians were previously listed as a UN observer “entity” with no voting rights.

The new status is an indirect recognition of the Palestinians’ claims on statehood in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. It allows them to join a number of UN agencies, as well as the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Abbas addressed the General Assembly ahead of the vote.

Abbas referenced the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, saying that Palestine had come to the UN at time when they were “still tending to [their] wounds and still burying [their] beloved martyrs of children, women and men who have fallen victim to the latest Israeli aggression”.

“What permits the Israeli government to blatantly continue with its aggressive policies and the perpetration of war crimes stems from its conviction that it is above the law and that it has immunity from accountability and consequences […] The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: Enough of aggression, settlements and occupation.”

He said that the Palestinians were not seeking to “delegitimise” Israel, but to affirm the legitimacy of Palestine as a state. This recognition of an upgraded UN status was the beginning of “a final serious attempt to achieve peace”, he said, stressing that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was seeking to “breathe new life” into negotiations.

“The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine.”

“The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: Enough of aggression, settlements and occupation.

– Mahmoud Abbas, 
Chairman, Palestinian Liberation Organisation

Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, also addressed the assembly before the vote, stressing that Israel was “prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state”, but that Israeli concerns about its security must be a part of any negotiated dialogue.

He said that none of Israel’s national security interests appeared in the resolution, and that this was why his country could not support it.

“For as long as President Abbas prefers symbolism over reality, as long as he prefers to travel to New York for UN resolutions rather than travel to Jerusalem for dialogue, any hope of peace will be out of reach.”

He called the resolution “one-sided” and passing it would show that “the international community is willing to turn a blind eye to peace agreements”.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, meanwhile, condemned Abbas’ statements as being “hostile and poisonous”. In a statement released after the speech, Netanyahu said that “these are not the words of a man who wants peace”.

The latest bid comes a year after the Palestinian leader first approached the UN to seek full state membership but the request stalled at the Security Council due to opposition from the veto-wielding US.

In a statement issued ahead of the vote, Abbas said that the Palestinians “remain committed to the two-state solution and our hand remains extended in peace”. 

Rival factions celebrate

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, thousands of Palestinians from rival factions celebrated in the streets of the West Bank. In a departure from previous opposition, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, said it would not interfere with the bid, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations. 

“For as long as President Abbas prefers symbolism over reality, as long as he prefers to travel to New York for UN resolutions rather than travel to Jerusalem for dialogue, any hope of peace will be out of reach.

– Ron Prosor, 
Israeli ambassador to the UN

The Palestinians say Israeli settlement-building on occupied West Bank land has hampered prospects for a bilateral statehood deal. Disagreement over the issue led to negotiations stalling in 2010.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) executive committee member, described the bid as a “last-ditch effort”.

“We believe the two-state solution is in jeopardy because of [Israeli] actions. We want to ensure that the world is still committed to the establishment of a sovereign viable democratic free Palestinian state to interact as an equal,” she said on Wednesday.

A simple majority vote in the 193-member General Assembly would be enough to bestow non-member observer status, bypassing the Security Council – where the US, Israel’s ally, has a veto.

A similar campaign by the Palestinians last year proved short-lived amid opposition from Israel and the US, which said a Palestinian state should be founded in agreement with Israel.

European support divided

France and Italy have both said that they would vote in favour of Palestinian non-member status, an important boost in Palestinian efforts to secure greater international recognition.

The Palestinians have lobbied for support from European countries for their bid. While Israel has lobbied against them, the Palestinians are set for a sure victory in the 193-member world body made up mostly of developing countries long sympathetic to their cause.

“This Thursday or Friday, when the question is asked, France will vote yes,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced in the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, on Tuesday.

 Thousands rally in Ramallah to support bid

“It is only with negotiations between the two sides that we demand immediately without any preconditions that a Palestinian state can become a reality,” he said.

On Thursday, Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister, phoned Abbas to inform him of his country’s decision to the bid at the UN, according to a statement. Monti also spoke with Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, assuring him that the decision did not signal a weakening of the traditionally strong Israel-Italy relationship.

Palestinian officials, keen on solidifying as much European favour as they can in the hours before the vote, have indicated they will not immediately seek to accede to the ICC, addressing a last international concern.

Israeli, British and US diplomats, apparently realising that they can no longer sway the Palestinians’ in their whole bid, are now seeking guarantees that Palestinians would forego filing complaints against Israel in the court.

Palestinian officials have refused. But, appearing to balance their tone, they said the timing and strategy of their eventual ICC accession is a matter for later internal discussion.
“It is our right, and we will not abandon it. We will decide on the proper timing, given our priorities and best interests,” Ashrawi said.

“It’s not for any country to get the Palestinians to relinquish their rights. And if Israel is innocent, it has nothing to fear from the court,” she told the Reuters news agency.

Britain, which in recent weeks had pushed European countries to abstain on the statehood vote, has requested that Palestinians renounce applying to the ICC in return for changing the British vote to a “yes”.

The ICC is not an official organ of the United Nations, but generally accepts applications from its members.

Israel has at times cancelled visits by officials to Britain out of fear of war crimes litigation there. It is concerned that future Palestinian claims at the court could focus on its leaders and undermine its standing abroad.

On Thursday, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy, reiterated the bloc’s support for the recognition of Palestine as a full member of the UN “when appropriate”, but said that “only a political solution” would bring peace to both Israel and Palestine.

‘Two-state solution’

Israel and the US condemn the UN bid, saying the only genuine route to statehood for the Palestinians is via a peace agreement made in direct talks with Israel.

Peace talks, however, have been stalled for two years over the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which have expanded despite being deemed illegal by most of the world. On Thursday, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said the peace process was “on life support”, and that direct negotiations must resume.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu downplayed the Palestinian’s attempt to achieve their long-promised state.

“The decision at the UN today won’t change anything on the ground,” Netanyahu said. “It won’t promote the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will distance it.”

“Israel’s hand is always extended in peace, but a Palestinian state will not be established without [a Palestinian] recognition of the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s state. A Palestinian state will not be established without a declaration of the end of the conflict… without real security arrangements that protect the State of Israel and its citizens,” the prime minister said.

Israel and the US have discussed withholding aid and tax revenue that the Palestinian government in the West Bank needs to survive. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has also viewed options that include bringing down Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas said he was ready for an unconditional resumption of peace talks with Israel after a successful bid.

On Tuesday, a senior Israeli official told reporters that Israel would act cautiously, just as Palestinian negotiators said the number of countries indicating their decisions to vote “yes” was on the rise.

France has indicated its support, while Palestinian envoys say Ireland, Malta, Portugal and Luxembourg have conveyed their intention to vote “Yes”, leaving Germany and the Czech Republic among the few possible “No” votes.

European countries were split in voting for a successful Palestinian bid to join the UN cultural agency UNESCO in October 2011. They appear to be leaning more closely towards supporting the Palestinian statehood bid in recent days.

“We support Palestinians’ right to self-determination, without prejudicing good relations between Israel and the Palestinians and talks to ultimately solve the conflict,” a European diplomat whose country supports the bid told Reuters.

“European countries have made an investment, politically and economically, in a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living in security with each other. We have an interest in moving that vision forward,” the diplomat said.

European countries are eager to empower moderates, analysts say, after a bloody eight-day conflict this month between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“If you add up the political calculations, nobody’s willing to cut off their money and undermine Abu Mazen [Abbas] or his government,” said Ramallah-based political commentator and former government spokesperson Diana Buttu.