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Palestinians’ gambit for UN recognition wobbles

After 20 years of negotiations with Israel and no lasting peace, Palestinians are pursuing a more unorthodox route: getting the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an independent state – and, ideally, welcome it as a new UN member.

Two-thirds of Palestinians support the UN bid, which has lifted their expectations of sovereignty.

But now, with the potential vote just two months away and the paperwork due this month, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials appear to be getting cold feet. The United States has vowed to veto the move, all but guaranteeing that Palestinians would be denied full UN membership.

While the UN could instead make a symbolic declaration or upgrade the PA’s observer status, officials are increasingly worried that a symbolic but toothless measure could prompt popular frustration and anger that would weaken the PA and strengthen hard-liners like Hamas.

“We need practical help in ending the occupation. Symbolic or declarative achievements [are] not exactly what we are looking for – although useful – [they’re] not good enough,” says Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib. “The Palestinian leadership has been promising or expecting to deliver in September. When it fails, it will undermine its public standing and strengthen the standing of the opposition.”

The Palestinians are still considering their options. Today they sought the advice of neighbors on the UN move at a meeting of the Arab League in Doha, Qatar while chief negotiator Saeb Erekat drew up a paper laying out the pros and cons of various strategies at the UN, according to Israel Radio. The Arab League later announced that it will ask the UN for recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

Detractors on all sides

Indeed, members of the Islamist Hamas movement in charge of the Gaza Strip argue that the statehood bid is fundamentally flawed.

“[The late Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat had announced a state in the 1980s, and many countries recognized Palestine as a state, but what did he gain?” asks Ammar Ahmed, a young Hamas policeman and member of a Hamas armed wing in Gaza. “Nothing but a stupid useless peace process that has harmed the Palestinian cause and the legal struggle of the Palestinians to defy the Israeli occupation.

“Even if [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas succeeded and got some support from the Arabs and some friendly countries, Israel may reoccupy Gaza and intensify its occupation of the West Bank,” says Mr. Ahmed, who worries that Israel would stop providing water and electricity and could withhold the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA. “This may be the last nail in the coffin of the already bankrupted PA. This once again proves the legal armed resistance is the best way to get statehood.”

The UN campaign has spooked Israel, which views it a unilateral move that violates past peace treaties between the Palestinians and Israel.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened retaliation, saying that his staff has prepared a “basket of unilateral responses.”

But Palestinians appear undeterred by the prospect of conflict; three in four expect the PA to follow up the UN vote with moves to enforce Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, according to a late June poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah.

“Obviously, those most worried about this are the [Palestinian] commanders of the security services who are concerned about the increased chances for conflict with demonstrators,” says PCPSR director Khalil Shikaki in an e-mail.

Israeli security forces, too, are bracing for mass protests pegged to the UN move and inspired by the spirit of popular demonstration and civil disobedience spreading through the region.

Israel is also concerned that formal UN support for an independent Palestine could play into a broader campaign to delegitimize Israel’s democratic credentials, risking a pariah status similar to apartheid South Africa.

US likely to be an obstacle at UN

President Obama and US lawmakers, seeking to protect Israel and viewing the UN move as a challenge to its leadership on the peace process, have strongly opposed the statehood bid. On June 29, the US Senate passed a unanimous resolution urging Palestinian leaders to “cease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process,” specifically calling out the UN campaign. If the PA fails to cease such efforts, the resolution warned, Congress could place restrictions on the roughly half-billion dollars in annual aid it sends to the PA.

Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri believes that Abbas’s aides are looking for an exit strategy. “They are afraid of stopping aid from the US. They are afraid of Palestinian protests,” he says.

The UN move coincides with a deadline for a peace deal declared by Obama last year at a peace conference with both Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also marks the conclusion of a two-year Palestinian state-building plan that has won Prime Minister Salam Fayyad international praise.

In order for a state to gain UN membership, the Security Council must recommend a General Assembly vote. Since the US is one of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, such a recommendation is almost certain to be withheld. So the Palestinians are now likely to seek confirmation as an observer state or push for a General Assembly resolution on statehood – decisions with symbolic value but little impact in practice. Palestinian officials are already dialing back expectations.

“How can we be a full member without getting the Israelis out of our territories?” says Mahmoud Labadi, a spokesman for the international relations arm of Abbas’s Fatah party. A UN vote on observer status, he says, represents “external pressure against Israel…. It’s an important political tool to tell the world that Israel is an occupying state.”

Karam Alborno, the owner of a computer shop in Gaza City, agrees. “We know that the resolution will not pass in the UN because of the American veto, but such a step goes in the right direction to tell Israel and the whole world that we want a state and will get it sooner or later,” he says. “I think when the efforts to get a state are foiled by Israel, America, and their allies, Abbas should not get back to negotiations. He has to sue Israel in international courts.”

Negotiations still on their mind

Abbas still prefers negotiations, he has emphasized in recent weeks, portraying the UN vote as simply the next best option. US envoys have visited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to feel out whether there’s flexibility on a return to talks, which stalled last fall over the Palestinian precondition for a freeze in Israeli settlement-building.

Mr. Masri says the Palestinians are probably willing to drop that precondition if Israel accepts Obama’s call to negotiate based on the 1967 Green Line with land swaps. Mr. Netanyahu has resisted this so far, calling those borders “indefensible.”

A former Palestinian negotiator said the UN bid seems like a tactic aimed at improving the Palestinian position when talks resume, but said that tactic lacks a broader strategy to support it. “So you become a member state of the UN – what more is it going to give you than not being a member state? Israel occupied Lebanon for two decades, and it is still occupying [the Golan Heights in] Syria. The UN hasn’t done anything about it,” says the negotiator, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of his criticism.

But even if the move isn’t ultimately fruitful, many Palestinians see it as the PA’s effort to be proactive amid a diplomatic impasse with Israel.

“For the time being, this is all they’ve got,” says Amad Otallah, taking a break from shopping at Ramallah’s Plaza mall. “It sure beats stomping your feet and crying about it. At this stage, you get what you can get.”

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/15/2011 - 08:55 pm.

    WW II ended 60 years ago. It’s time for the UN to remove the ability of any one state to veto an action the rest of its members want. I’m not familiar with UN regulations, but can’t the General Assembly override such a veto?

    UN recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state would give its citizens much more “say” in the world. Israel has not negotiated in good faith for decade after decade, and it IS time for the Palestinians to take the current Israeli government to the World Court for judgment.

    No Middle Eastern neighbor wants Israel to go away, but they do want justice for its victims and an end to the land grabs and illegal settlements and its illegal imprisonment of Gaza’s civilians behind onerous checkpoints.

  2. Submitted by Jonathan Johnson on 08/28/2011 - 11:22 am.

    We Americans speak of freedoms, tolerance, and diversity, yet our government makes the Zionist occupation possible against our will, with our tax money, and making us accomplices in constant murders that the Zionist regime is committing including murders of our own American citizens (search on youtube for “Rachel Corrie” video of Zionist bulldozer crushing her to death). I am ashamed as an American that our politicians are controlled by the Zionist regime to such a terrifying extent. Tens of senators, state representatives, and ambassadors to foreign countries are Jewish. While I recognize that many are honest and against the Zionist regime, I am concerned about the fair representation of our will at the highest levels of our government. Just look on Wikipedia for “List of Jewish American politicians,” and visit to discover that all five Federal Reserve chairmen/chairwomen are Jewish, and almost all (9 out of 12) regional Fed chairmen/chairwomen are also Jewish. I never like to generalize, but Jews comprise only 2% of our population and they have so much power in the government and almost absolute power over our money supply and economic polices. I am just not comfortable that all Americans are being represented properly especially not on the Palestine occupation issue that I know most people do not support judging by the comments against the Zionist regime I hear everywhere.
    Urge your state representatives and senators to immediately stop any remaining support for the Zionist regime. Much of the support already stopped because of the increasing pressure on this issue, but we Americans need to completely distance ourselves from this oppressive regime and stop being accomplices in its murders! The world is also reacting. Who would want to be remembered in history as an accomplice to ruthless occupation? Many countries, companies, and countless moral individuals have already successfully implemented no relations with the Zionist government and others are implementing the same policy as we speak. Not travel there, not buy anything from it, not trade with it, not communicate with it, etc. Also do the same with any country that supports it because the Zionist government only survives because of its external supporters.

  3. Submitted by James Martin on 08/28/2011 - 12:00 pm.

    Why would Zionists want to discuss any peace agreement with the Palestinians when they have overwhelming military supremacy, seemingly ultimate power, and apparently bright future? Because the future is completely opposite and Zionists know it.

    1. All military powers in history with no exception ultimately came crashing down. Someone stronger always comes, and it does not take a rocket scientist to see (just look around you) this coming and not ending well for the current military power in Palestine. Forward-seeing Jewish people under the Zionist regime already started packing up and leaving for Australia, South America, and the U.S. before this occurs.

    2. It is obvious that the Zionist regime survives mainly because of its external allies who so far provided it with money, weapons, political support, access to markets, etc. After countless U.N. human rights violations, killing of its allies’ citizens (search on youtube for American “Rachel Corrie” video of Zionist bulldozer crushing her to death), forging of its allies’ passports in acts of murder, etc. its former allies are increasingly turning against the Zionist regime. Who would want to be remembered in history as an accomplice in international murders and especially of their own citizens.

    3. Not only that the list of remaining supporters is growing thinner, but an international coalition is formed and growing larger of countries that are cutting all economic and diplomatic relations with the Zionist regime.

    4. No country ever survived a complete isolation from its neighbors. No person of the area currently under Zionist occupation can obtain any type of visa from any of the surrounding countries for any reason – a complete land lock.

    5. Well attended speeches take place almost weekly at colleges and universities across the U.S. and the world condemning the Zionist regime, their remaining supporters, and companies that do any business there. These speeches are often lead by moral Jewish people, church leaders, business people, etc., in addition to traditional peace activists.

    6. The West where most of the traditional supporters of the Zionist regime are located is loosing global influence. China, the Middle East, South East Asia, Russia, South America, etc. are emerging as new pockets of economic and political power where the Zionist regime has angered most of the population.

    7. Not only that the West is declining, but Zionists are loosing political control in the declining West. Diversity is bringing minority groups into politics, groups that are actively opposing the Zionist regime.

    In conclusion, the Zionist regime is negotiating now because its future is changing for much worse. It knows that it temporarily exists now only through the force of its arms and this will be short-lived. It knows that it is at its peak and a downturn has come. It is a mistake to negotiate with the Zionist regime at the present time. But, if you have to negotiate, do not accept anything less than a single region in question (single state) where all who live there are equal. Any other “solution” would just reward the Zionist regime at the time of its demise. If the Zionist regime wants true piece, let’s not make it dependent on Zionist political and land acquisition goals, but on democratic vote for all who live there and making everyone equal (something we Americans cherish so passionately).

  4. Submitted by Marlon McKenzie on 08/28/2011 - 12:44 pm.

    All who oppose the Zionist regime please STOP calling it “Israel” Every time you do it you reward the occupation of Palestine. Name “Israel” implies a state on the occupied territory. Call the occupiers what they really are: the Zionist regime. This way, every time you refer to it, you will imply its temporary nature (the nature of all occupying regimes). Encourage your fellow comment posters to use the name Zionist regime as well. We must also be categorically against generalizing, and recognize that many Jews are against the crimes the Zionist regime is committing in their names, and that many Jews are leading the global resistance to it. They should be proud. I wish that they finally find piece wherever they choose to live (including Palestine) through a peaceful democratic process as opposed to the Nazi-style occupation the current Zionist regime is using.

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