In the whirr of diplomacy taking place at the United Nations, the case for and against statehood recognition for the Palestinians has become almost an afterthought. Rather, two countries, the United States and Israel, are going to great lengths to avert the embarrassing consequences of an expected application. Great pressure is being placed on the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to abandon the bid for UN recognition and, instead, resume peace talks with Israel. Given the unproductive history of such negotiations, that is hardly an option of promise for the Palestinians. Mr Abbas, indeed, has every reason to proceed along his present path – and to expect widespread international support.
He will not, of course, achieve his ambition of gaining full UN membership and Security Council recognition of Palestine as a state. The United States will, if necessary, exercise its veto. But the ramifications of this for America’s reputation among Arab states are so obvious that the White House is pressuring other Security Council members to oppose the Palestinian application, thereby avoiding that step. The fallback position for Mr Abbas is to win General Assembly support for Palestine to upgrade its status to a non-member observer state of the UN.
This would give a Palestinian government the same status as the Vatican, and allow it access to the likes of the International Criminal Court, the World Bank and Unicef. It would also mean that, even if in a largely symbolic manner, Palestine had a greater case to regard its negotiations with Israel as being state to state. General Assembly approval is virtually a certainty, in line with most UN members’ support of a two-state solution to the present impasse.
The bid would, however, cast a spotlight on Israel. It would lead to questions about that country’s attitude in the many years of stalled peace negotiations, and its settlement building, which has continued despite the pleading of the US. Uncomfortably for Israel, the answers might suggest Mr Abbas would stand to gain little if he abandoned the UN bid and resumed talks. And that this situation would be unlikely to change so long as Binyamin Netanyahu remains in power in Te Aviv.
Israel has become increasingly isolated in the Middle East, a consequence of both the Arab Spring uprisings and its alienation from Turkey. Its strident opposition to the Palestinians’ approach to the UN is likely to increase the antipathy towards it. This is a time when it should be showing a genuine interest in creating a workable peace in which both Israel and Palestine recognise each other’s right to statehood.
Mr Abbas appeals as a partner if such a course were pursued. A moderate, he has fashioned a rapprochement between his Fatah party and the more radical Hamas. Yet Israel and the US are going to great lengths to deny him even the largely symbolic achievement of enhanced UN recognition. In seeking to stop the application, Israel is threatening to withhold the tax and tariffs that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, while some in the US Congress want to axe Washington’s annual aid.
If Mr Abbas is denied his moment or if reprisals follow, it will only add to the sense of grievance in Palestine. It will also aid those in the Palestinian hierarchy who want a hardline and more aggressive approach to Israel. The position adopted by Mr Abbas could become untenable. If so, the opportunity for the meaningful direct peace negotiations that must, at some time, take place will slip away. To help prevent that outcome, New Zealand’s representative at the General Assembly should support an application by Palestine to become a non-member observer state.
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