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Palestinians Seeking UN Statehood to Get Same Rights as Pope

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, may walk away from the UN General Assembly this month with the same status as the Holy See, led by Pope Benedict XVI. Photographer: Thaer Ganaim/PPO via Getty Images
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, may walk away from the UN General Assembly this month with the same status as the Holy See, led by Pope Benedict XVI. Photographer: Thaer Ganaim/PPO via Getty Images

Sept. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas won’t walk away from the United Nations General Assembly this month with the sought-after full statehood. More likely, he’ll get parity with the world’s smallest state, led by Pope Benedict XVI.

Support for the upgrade in Palestinian status at the UN from “entity” to “non-member state” is likely if the matter is brought to a vote in the 193-member assembly, where a two-thirds majority, or 129 votes, is required. The Obama administration for the first time confirmed today it will veto any resolution brought to the powerful UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state for full UN membership.

“An action in New York is not going to achieve that objective” of a two-state solution, nor will it change the facts on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.

Gaining equality with the only sovereign state that isn’t a UN member, the Holy See, may be more than symbolic. It may allow the Palestinian Authority to sign treaties such as the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court, according to European diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity. Access to the court in The Hague may provide legal cover for the Palestinian Authority to seek war-crimes prosecutions of Israelis for actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the European diplomats said.

‘Burning Bridges’

“The big question looming is whether it’s worth burning bridges with the Americans to get something that may give them access to some more treaties but would not change the reality on the ground,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator who is executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington.

The Palestinian Authority is now one rung below the Holy See -- the central government of the Roman Catholic Church -- in the UN pecking order. About 140 countries are likely to support the bid for treatment as a state, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said Sept. 4. The U.S. and Israel oppose the effort, saying Palestinians and Israelis should negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Esther Brimmer, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said yesterday in Washington that the U.S. will “fight hard” against efforts “to use the UN as the venue” to promote statehood for the Palestinians.

Campaign Launched

The Palestinians formally launched their statehood campaign today with the submission of a letter to the UN office in Ramallah. It calls on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to support the Palestinians’ “inalienable right to establish a sovereign and independent democratic state on the pre-June 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” according to a copy e-mailed to journalists.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee held a meeting in Ramallah today chaired by Abbas to officially endorse the statehood bid. The committee’s secretary-general, Yasser Abed Rabbo, told reporters afterward that it is calling on Palestinians to hold “peaceful demonstrations” in support of the move.

Dubbed a “diplomatic tsunami” by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Palestinian bid for statehood will dominate the gathering of world leaders later this month. It will highlight President Barack Obama’s failure to deliver on a peace plan that, at last year’s General Assembly, he said would lead to “an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.”

Negotiations Stuck

With peace negotiations stuck, the Palestinians have decided to take the matter into their own hands.

The membership bid by the Palestinian leader would be the biggest action of its kind in 13 years, when members of the world body voted to confer additional privileges to the PA, a permanent observer since 1974. These included the right to participate in the general debate held at the start of each session of the General Assembly, the right to co-sponsor draft resolutions and the right to raise points of order on Middle East issues. The PA still has no voting rights.

Taking the issue to the General Assembly is a way to get around the Security Council, where the Obama administration threatens a veto.

Going down this road is a sign of how frustrated the Palestinian leadership has become with Obama, said Hussein Ibish, a fellow at the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, which advocates a peaceful end to the conflict.

U.S. Envoys

Obama sent two Mideast envoys, David Hale and Dennis Ross, who met with Abbas yesterday in an effort to avoid a diplomatic showdown.

“There is still a dispute with the U.S. over going to the UN,” said the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat.

Abbas, who is preparing to hand over leadership of the Palestinian Authority to an undetermined successor, said in a May 13 opinion piece for the New York Times that “our quest for recognition as a state should not be seen as a stunt.”

His UN envoy, Riyad Mansour, said all options remain open. While the goal is full UN membership, the status granted South Sudan in July, the so-called Vatican option is also on the table.

Europe Split

The lack of a plan in a sea of contrasting voices has put western governments in a difficult position when it comes to formulating reactions, according to European diplomats not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The European Union is split among its 27 members on support for the Palestinian initiative. Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain are among the most vocal in their support. Italy and Germany are most likely to side with Israel, while the U.K. and France, both permanent members of the Security Council, are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Equal UN status with the Holy See may be all the Palestinian Authority and the 2,000-year-old institution would have in common.

The city state encircled by Rome covers about 0.4 square kilometers of territory and has fewer than 1,000 residents, mostly clergy. The Palestinian Authority-governed West Bank, also landlocked, stretches over 5,640 square kilometers (2,180 square miles) and is home to 1.7 million people, mostly Muslims. Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Sea since 2007.

Pope Benedict has called several times for the Palestinians to be granted a sovereign homeland. During a visit to Israel in 2009, he defied the wishes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visited the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Still, on Abbas’ specific bid for statehood at the UN, “Benedict has not and will not state a position,” spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, said in a telephone interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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