What the UN vote on Palestine really means

Palestine now occupies the same status as the Vatican

Thursday, November 29, 2012 - 8:30pm

A year after failing to win United Nations recognition as an independent state, the Palestinian Authority achieved what is perhaps a largely symbolic though notable status change on Thursday by way of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

The body decided that their "non-member observer entity" status should instead be "non-member observer state," similar to the Vatican, giving Palestinians a certain implicit degree of statehood recognition.

The following answers a list of frequently asked questions that may help clarify this relatively unique scenario.

What is the Palestinians' former status at the U.N.?

The Palestinians had had "permanent observer" status at the U.N. since 1974, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was recognized as an observer, a position which is not defined in the U.N.'s charter.

The mission, which subsequently became officially referred to as "Palestine" within the U.N. system, was in 1998 granted privileges that had previously been held only by member states. These included the rights to participate in general debate at the start of the General Assembly and to co-sponsor resolutions, giving the delegation a unique status, somewhere between observer and member.

What does the new status mean?

The new recognition the Palestinians obtained is a formal upgrade from observer entity that would implicitly recognize Palestinian statehood. It places the Palestinians in the same category as the Vatican. Switzerland was also a non-member observer state for more than 50 years until 2002.

Haven't the Palestinians tried this before without success?

In 2011, the Palestinians launched a bid for recognition as a full member of the U.N. But the effort stalled when it became apparent that the bid was not going to receive the requisite nine of 15 Security Council votes, and the U.S. promised to veto it if it came to a vote.

However, unlike a bid for full membership, recognition as a non-member state only requires winning a majority vote among the 193 members of the General Assembly. There is no threat of a Security Council veto.

According to the PLO, more than 130 of the U.N.'s 193 members already recognize Palestinian statehood through bilateral relations.

"It would then be seen as being a state in terms of international law and international relations," Iain Scobbie, the Sir Joseph Hotung Research Professor in Law at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, told CNN.

"But it wouldn't be a U.N. member, because they cannot get a membership vote through the Security Council."

The Palestinians have said they have not abandoned their application to become a full U.N. member state, but it is suspended at present.

Who was behind the move?

The statehood bid was driven by the Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, is also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank, one of two Palestinian territories, but has virtually no sway in Gaza, run by Hamas, Fatah's Islamist rivals who were recently locked in conflict with Israel.

The Palestinian Authority -- which was not a party to the recent conflict with Israel -- has come to be widely viewed as sidelined by Hamas in terms of the effectiveness of its recent strategies in dealing with Israel.

Hamas has also criticized Abbas's previous efforts to pursue Palestinian statehood at the U.N. but has reportedly said it supported Thursday's bid and that reconciliation talks with Fatah will take place after the U.N. vote.

"There are talks going on between Hamas and Fatah to realign themselves," said Scobbie. "They'd argue that separate political control over the two territories doesn't really matter that much."

Why did this happen now?

The statehood bid is thought to have emerged as a strategy after the lack of progress in peace talks, which stalled in 2010 over disagreements on the issue of Israeli West Bank settlements.

The Palestinian Authority leadership said it launched its initial bid for U.N. membership in response to the lapsing of the September 2011 deadline set by U.S. President Barack Obama for the successful negotiation with Israel for a two-state solution.

It has also argued that in recent years it has made great strides toward meeting the criteria of a sovereign state, pointing to the improvements in governance, security and physical infrastructure as indicators of their readiness.

Will this change anything on the ground?

Without the acknowledgment of Israel and the U.S., the U.N.'s recognition of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 boundaries is largely a symbolic move.

But to Palestinians, that recognition constitutes an important endorsement of the legitimacy of their claim to statehood, said Scobbie, potentially strengthening their hand in talks with Israel on sticking points.

In terms of substantive gains, it will assist a Palestinian attempt to join the International Criminal Court and to be able to ask the body to investigate acts committed by Israel as potential war crimes.

In April, the ICC blocked a request to investigate the 2008-2009 Gaza war, saying it was up to other bodies to determine whether the Palestinians could be considered a state, which in turn would allow it to join the court.

"If Palestine gets statehood then makes a successful application to join the ICC, that could create problems for Israel because of the way it conducts military operations in the West Bank and Gaza," said Scobbie.

"If the ICC issues arrest warrants, those Israelis have limited choices of travel because states party to the ICC would be under obligation to arrest them if they landed on their territory."

What is Israel's position on the statehood bid?

Israel has said any Palestinian attempt to elevate their status at the U.N. would amount to a unilateral action that would pre-empt final-status peace talks. This, Israel says, would violate their previous commitment to resolve outstanding issues through negotiations.

Along with the U.S., it believes U.N. action does not take the place of direct negotiations.

According to U.K. media reports, Britain has told the Palestinians they will support their bid only if they make an understanding not to pursue Israel for war crimes in the ICC and to resume peace talks.

What do Western countries think?

France made news this week by saying it would vote in favor of the Palestinians' request, becoming one of more prominent European countries to take that position. Portugal, Spain and Switzerland also supported the Palestinians' bid. The United States and Britain oppose it.

The French, who were once considering two scenarios, on Thursday backed the statehood bid.

"The game is to be in a better position down the road with the Palestinians," said Elliott Abrams, a Middle East expert with the Council of Foreign Relations. "France wants to be able to better influence them."

Polls in most Europeans cities overwhelmingly support Palestinians and take a dim view of Israel, he said. That explains why Portugal, Spain and Switzerland also sided with France.

"It's all local politics in Europe," Abrams said. "A politician in European countries is going to have to ask, 'What do I gain by supporting the Israelis on this?' The answer is you don't gain anything in political terms."

The United States views the bid as a bad idea, Abrams said, but that's an easier position to take for a country that is geographically alone and strong individually. Plus, the U.S. supports Israel and believes the only way to achieve peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians is at the negotiating table, Abrams said.

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