Palestinians moved one step closer to statehood last week when the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority from “nonmember observer entity” to “nonmember observer state.” There was little time for them to savor the diplomatic victory, however: Israel responded with the announcement that it would expand settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Plainly symbolic victories are no substitute for the hard slog of direct negotiations with Israel to forge a real peace.
The vote last week was overwhelming: 138 of the General Assembly’s 193 voters backed the change in status, Japan among them. Nine votes opposed the motion: Israel, the United States, the Czech Republic, Canada, Panama, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and Nauru. Forty-one members abstained.
Some will claim the vote was more symbolism than substance. The “state” of Palestine is already recognized by 132 countries; it has 80 embassies and 40 representative offices around the world. The fact that the vote took place on the 65th anniversary of the U.N. adoption of Resolution 181, which partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states accentuated its symbolism.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas believes that such symbolism matters: It constitutes international recognition of the statehood of Palestinians, a status that they have been unable to win through decades of negotiations.
His supporters believe that “statehood” status at the U.N. gives Mr. Abbas more leverage. For example, the Palestinians could now press their interests in other U.N. organizations, such as using the International Criminal Court to accuse Israel of committing war crimes.
Equally important for Mr. Abbas is the fact that he has now won a diplomatic victory. In recent weeks, he has been overshadowed by Hamas, the militant Islamic organization that controls the Gaza Strip after besting Fatah, the organization headed by Mr. Abbas, in elections in 2006.
Hamas launched a bloody confrontation with Israel last month that focused international attention on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and sidelined Mr. Abbas.
The latest U.N. vote reasserts Mr. Abbas’ authority and image, as well as his ability to advance the interests of the Palestinians, vis-a- vis Hamas. In addition, backers claim that it underscores the importance of diplomacy as the way to help Palestinians, rather than military confrontations.
Israel deeply opposes the move as does the United States — not because they oppose a Palestinian state, but because they want to make that outcome the result of diplomatic negotiations in which they have more leverage over final results.
Israel demands recognition of its right to exist by the Palestinians, and worries about the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinians. There is fear that statehood gained by diplomatic fiat will undermine Israel’s negotiating position and lessen the Palestinian desire to talk.
Moreover, the prospect that Palestine will use the International Criminal Court to press its case could harden the Israeli position. There have been threats to withhold tax revenue transfers if the Palestinian Authority tries that tack. U.S. lawmakers have held up more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority because of concerns about the U.N. vote.
Feelings run so deep in the U.S. that some lawmakers have even proposed cuts in funding to states — including European allies — that supported the measure.
While his rhetoric has soared — Mr. Abbas asked the U.N. General Assembly “to issue a birth certificate to the reality of the state of Palestine” — he has been guarded about what he intends to do with this new leverage. Israel has been quite clear, however. It announced last weekend that it intends to expand settlements in a disputed area of the West Bank, a move that will make even harder the task of drawing a map that both sides consider equitable.
The U.S. strongly opposes this decision by Israel, but Washington’s ability to keep the Israeli government from such a provocative move is limited precisely by the vote.
Some fear that Mr. Abbas could use this win as an excuse to get out of politics. He has had a difficult time since Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza. He can now claim that he has had a real victory for his people and that it is time for him to move on and let someone else do the work.
That would be a real loss as Mr. Abbas has consistently sought diplomatic solutions and few successors have his status to counter Hamas, or his commitment to a peaceful resolution.
Ultimately, peace demands a diplomatic solution. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians, whether represented by Hamas or Fatah, can impose their desired end state upon the other.
A negotiated agreement is required. Both sides must sit down together to thrash out a mutually acceptable solution. After all, it is worth remembering that while Palestinians celebrate the U.N. decision, it merely accords them status as a “nonmember state.”
Sixty-five years ago, the U.N. offered Palestinians a state of their own and full membership in the world body. They turned their back on that option, decided to pursue their own maximalist position, and have been struggling to make up for that fateful choice ever since.