The new Palestinian move to upgrade its status at the UN has evoked a fierce Israeli response, which includes various diplomatic, practical and propaganda measures. The Palestinians wish to enhance their status at the world body by gaining the status of a non-member ‘observer state’ like the Vatican —from the current status of an ‘observer entity’— whereby the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the people of Palestine since 1974.
This Palestinian move comes after its failed attempt to become a full member state at the UN in 2011 because of lack of support for its bid at the Security Council. Current Palestinian hopes rest on the fact that US has no power to ‘veto’ its move in the General Assembly and as Palestinians have a better chance of securing the required number of votes for the passage of the motion. Today, Palestinians are making steady efforts to complete the consultation process with various Arab, regional and international groups on the final form of the draft resolution, which will be submitted for vote before the end of 2012.
From a historical standpoint, the new move will replace PLO’s observer status at the UN to that of ‘Palestine’, as an acknowledgment to the Palestinian National Council’s declaration of independence in 1988. For a long time, the lack of effective, practical and political Palestinian control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip had led the international community to surmise that the Palestinian Independence Declaration could not by itself bring about the creation of a state. After the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the General Assembly had accorded the status of ‘observer entity’ to Palestine. Thereby, Palestinian representatives gained the right to participate, talk and vote in all sessions of The General Assembly, even in those that do not deal with Middle East issues. The Security Council also invites Palestinian representatives (in accordance with the ‘observer’ status) in sessions where issues related to Palestinian interests are taken up.
However, the present Palestinian status as an observer entity (not an observer state) does not allow its representatives to directly engage in any political role at UN organizations. Thus, on becoming an ‘observer state,’ Palestine will enjoy a special practical, diplomatic and legal status, which could pose a multi-faceted challenge to Israel. Let us find out how this might happen?
Although it is true that even if the latest attempt is successful, Palestine will not become a full member state at the UN because it is not a state, according to international criteria. Again the General Assembly’s decision is not binding. Still, Israel is aware that if Palestine becomes an “observer state” it will allow it to claim being under occupation (particularly with reference to 67 of its territories) and Palestine will no longer be a disputed land.
The Palestinian state will also be able to join international institutions and compacts that do not require membership at the UN (such as, constitution of the international criminal court and could be included in charters open to non-member states with the approval of the General Assembly (such as the charter of human rights). As an observer state, Palestine could join the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in the Hague, and sue Israel for its war crimes against Palestinians. Israel fears that if ‘Palestine’ joins the ICC, it would have far reaching effects on Israel’s policy on colony building and settlements as well as siege of the Gaza Strip. However, it is difficult for any state to use the International Court of Justice in the Hague effectively (as opposed to the International Criminal Court) as it can only adjudicate on matters of dispute where both parties have agreed to submit to its decision.
Given Israel’s full awareness of the ramifications of the new Palestinian move, Israeli officials have started to place obstacles by leveling charges, and using the harshest words of condemnation and denunciation against the UN address by President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas (at the 67th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 27, 2012).
Although a wide section of Palestinian opinion views the Palestinian Authority’s move as a setback to negotiations and to the Oslo framework, Israeli officials have dealt with Abbas’ speech as a ripe fruit, fit to be struck down to deliver a blow to the Palestinian Authority.
In a supercilious address at the General Assembly (27 September 2012), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only tried to undermine the Palestinian cause, but reiterated that “we would not solve our conflict by making unilateral declarations of statehood.” Netanyahu also decided to add a sentence to his speech (in his answer to Abbas) by saying that the President of the Palestinian Authority would not solve the conflict by making “libelous speeches at the UN.” During his meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York, Netanyahu called Abbas’ speech an “incitement”.
For his part, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman used the speech by Abbas to give momentum to the smear campaign he launched months ago against the Palestinian Authority and its President. According to Lieberman, Palestinians are making a great effort to delegitimize and isolate Israel internationally in order to seek recognition for Palestine as an “observer state” in the UN. Therefore, Lieberman described Abbas’ speech at the world body as a “spit in the face” of Israel. Remarkably, these comments come within months of Israel providing aid to the PA to rescue it from collapsing. Lieberman also claimed that Abbas does not intend to be a partner in the peace process and threatened that there will be “a price to pay” if he continued to seek UN recognition for Palestine as a non-member state. He called on Israel to stop making ‘artificial’ attempts to support Abbas, which its government does at times to prevent a new leadership from emerging and to keep Hamas away from taking over the West Bank.
Other Israeli officials have also criticized Abbas. Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon called the President of the Palestinian Authority ‘treacherous’ and one who “never prepared his people for peace” with Israel. Daniel Hershkowits, minister of science and technology and the leader of ‘The Jewish Home’ Party, responded to Abbas’ speech by saying: “Abu Mazen has once again proven, in his speech last night, that a Palestinian state will create an enemy state east of our country ... Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan there is room for only one country — Israel.” He also said that “the Palestinian bid for a Palestinian state must be lowered from the agenda.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called on the international community to stop donating money to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if that money eventually reaches terrorists and their families. However, amid these statements and exchanges at the diplomatic front, Israel is assured that the United States and the European Union will oppose Palestinians in their attempt to gain the status of an “observer state,” and will continue to stress that the Palestinian state can only come into existence through direct negotiations with Israel. Meanwhile, Israel is preparing a major, international media blitz to tarnish the image of the PA and its President, Mahmoud Abbas. It is openly claiming that “the political stance of Abbas is aimed at undermining Israel and at denying the Jewish people their right on their land.”
Thus, Tel Aviv is trying to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 borders and is refusing to deal with the West Bank as an occupied territory according to the international law. Meanwhile, the difficult living conditions and deadlocked political negotiations with Israel, have forced Palestinians to bear this nightmare amid the growing threat of a possible dismemberment of the Palestinian Authority and returning the keys back to Israel. According to estimates by Israeli security services, the likelihood of such an outcome is high and if this happens, it could cost Israel roughly $3.25 billion, in addition to other responsibilities. What should be done to avert this possibility?
In response to these internal Palestinian developments and external political situation, Israel is moving on two parallel lines. First, it is punishing the Palestinian Authority for taking steps that it deems are harming Israel. Its punishments include annexing more Palestinian areas in the West Bank, making provocative remarks against the Palestinian Authority, continuing colony-building in very important areas, hindering the activities of the PA in Area C (which is under Israeli civil and security control), redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank, etc.
The second tack of Israeli action relates to providing limited assistance for the PA to assuage some Palestinian, regional and international anger, the transfer of some portions of tax money collected from Palestinians to the PA, the dismantling of unimportant sections of the separation wall, and the removal of some marginal outposts in settlement areas, etc).
It is clear that the main principle guiding Israeli policy in moving on these two tacks stems from the need to maintain the status quo and to sustain a much weakened PA. It is a principle that demonstrates Israel’s capability in forcing Palestinians into a corner, who are left with few options and are feeling quite despondent given their tragic situation. However, this remains a fierce conflict in a strategic, political and geographical space that should be given more attention by our nation.