Palestinians Upgraded to ‘Observer State’ at UN

Palestinians Upgraded to ‘Observer State’ at United Nations
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

The United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize Palestinians as an “observer state,” a largely symbolic upgrade in status that drew criticism and potential financial penalties from the U.S. and Israel.

The 193-member General Assembly voted 138-9, with 41 abstentions, for a resolution granting the Palestine Liberation Organization an implicit form of statehood, putting it on a par in the world body with the Holy See. The most significant ramification is that the Palestinians will be able to join UN agencies and sign treaties, such as the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appealed for support yesterday, saying the action would amount to a “birth certificate” for the State of Palestine. It will give hope to millions and save a peace process in “intensive care,” he said, even as the U.S. and Israel called the UN action a setback to the peace process.

Abbas sought the diplomatic victory in New York to blunt the momentum of his Hamas rivals, who rule the Gaza Strip while he governs the West Bank. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the UN vote, which his office called a “meaningless decision,” will hinder the peace process.

Israel Reacts

“The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties directly; through valid negotiations between themselves and not through UN resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests,” Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement before the vote. “And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backward.”

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called the resolution “unfortunate and counter-productive.”

“Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade, and the Palestinians will wake up tomorrow and find that little of their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded,” Rice said.

In addition to the U.S. and Israel, the countries voting against the resolution were Canada, the Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama. The U.K. and Germany were among the abstentions.

A year ago, U.S. opposition killed Abbas’s bid in the Security Council for the PLO to become the UN’s newest full member. Yesterday’s lesser step by the General Assembly, just weeks after President Barack Obama was re-elected, sets in motion a series of punitive actions by the U.S. and Israel.

‘Hollow Victory’

“In a basic cost-benefit analysis, it seems that the benefit is very little and the cost very high,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Sure he’s desperate, but he will go back to Ramallah with a hollow victory, as nothing on the ground will have changed.”

Hours before the UN vote, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation to punish the Palestinian Authority. Senators including Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York proposed a measure that would force closing the PLO office in Washington unless the Palestinians enter into “meaningful negotiations” with Israel.

The proposal, offered as an amendment to the Senate defense authorization bill, also would eliminate U.S. foreign assistance to the Palestinian Authority if the International Criminal Court adjudicates any matter proposed by the Palestinian Authority.

Cheering Palestinians

The UN vote comes a week after a cease-fire that halted eight days of bloodshed between Israel and Hamas. Hamas leaders, who seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, portrayed the outcome of the fighting as a victory that will ultimately force Israel to lift its blockade of the seaside territory, home to 1.6 million Palestinians.

Hebron, Bethlehem and other West Bank cities were festooned with Palestinian and UN flags while folk dancers and chorus groups climbed on outdoor stages to celebrate the statehood vote.

“We are thirsty for the taste of independence,” Ibrahim Sajadi, a 47-year-old teacher, said while being jostled by the crowd that packed Ramallah’s Yasser Arafat Square, where giant television screens broadcast Abbas’s speech live from New York.

“The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine,” Abbas said in a 25-minute address to the General Assembly before the vote. “Our endeavor is not aimed at terminating what remains of the negotiations process, which has lost its objective and credibility, but rather aimed at trying to breathe new life into the negotiations.”

Combative Tone

Still, Abbas struck a combative tone in the speech, in which he didn’t invite Israel to return to direct talks, denounced its “racist, colonial occupation” and its “ aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip.”

Netanyahu, who wasn’t present in New York, responded via text message: “The world watched a satanic speech dripping with poison, filled with deceitful propaganda against Israel.”

In Gaza, people cheered and men fired AK-47s into the air in celebration. Hamas leaders voiced tepid support for the UN effort while maintaining that last week’s confrontation, in which 175 Palestinians and six Israelis lost their lives, did more to advance the cause of statehood than Abbas’s past diplomatic efforts.

Negotiations broke down two years ago when Netanyahu refused to extend a partial 10-month construction freeze in West Bank settlements and the Palestinians said they wouldn’t resume talks as long as building continued.

U.K. Comments

With its new status, the PLO may pursue membership in the International Criminal Court and seek legal action against Israel for alleged human-rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The U.K abstained, rather than voting for the measure, because Abbas failed to give assurances that the Palestinians wouldn’t go to the court which “would be likely to make a return to negotiations impossible,” Foreign Minister William Hague said in an e-mailed statement.

Hague called on the Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions and urged Israel “to avoid reacting in a way that undermines the peace process.”

Financial Hits

In response to yesterday’s vote, Israel plans to withhold 800 million shekels ($210 million) of tax revenue it would normally transfer to the Palestinians, and use it to pay their debt to Israel Electric Corp. Netanyahu issued a statement saying the Palestinians “have violated agreements with Israel and Israel will act accordingly.”

Also at stake is the continuation of a U.S. aid package that has averaged $600 million a year since 2008, according to a Nov. 21, 2012, report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress.

Also, U.S. law requires cutting off U.S. funding to any UN agency that recognizes a Palestinian state. A day after Unesco granted Palestinians membership last year, the U.S. halted funding for the UN cultural agency best known for its designation of “world heritage” sites.

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