The UN General Assembly is about to vote on recognizing Palestine. More countries support recognition, but will it help bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table?
"A political victory for the Palestinians and a defeat for Jerusalem," said Yossi Mekelberg, a political analyst at the UK thinktank Chatham House, of the vote at the UN General Assembly in New York, for this Thursday (29.11.2012). A large majority of member states, including now France, stand behind the application, Mekelberg told Deutsche Welle. Should it succeed, Palestine will have independent observer status within the UN, like the Vatican.
In the short term, the vote wouldn't do much to alter the political balance between Israel and the Palestinians, explained Mekelberg. But it is entirely likely that observer status could one day become full membership, he added. That would already have happened if the US hadn't vetoed the vote in the Security Council.
"Most of the international community simply doesn't understand why the Palestinians - who after all govern an independent West Bank - can't at least get observer status," Mekelberg said.
Settlement sticking point
This is precisely what the moderate Fatah party, which governs the West Bank, is hoping for. "Our application [for the UN status] is an attempt to save the two-state solution," Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestinian negotiating team, told Deutsche Welle. Recognition by the UN would send a clear signal "that our country is an occupied state," he said, referring to Israel's settlement policy.
That Israel continues to build settlements on the West Bank is "the biggest obstacle to further peace negotiations" said Mekelberg, adding that he doesn't believe recognition of observer status would put an end to that. "Israel's argument is: As long as the Palestinians take unilateral diplomatic steps, we will change the situation on the ground by building more settlements."
Paul Hirschson, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, criticized the Palestinian initiative. "The Palestinians are violating the Oslo Agreements, which say that all outstanding problems must be resolved by negotiation," he said, adding that he thinks Israel would no longer be able to trust the Palestinians after the UN vote.
For that reason, the recognition will have "very negative consequences" for relations between the two sides. "The Palestinians are not building bridges, they're burning them," said Hirschson.
But Mekelberg argues that Fatah had basically no other choice than to go to New York. It is militarily outgunned by Israel, and he sees any armed conflict as strengthening the position of the more radical Hamas at Fatah's expense. "But politically nothing will happen as long as the settlements keep growing," he said.
"That's why they have no alternative but to take to the international stage," Mekelberg said. The apparent intention with this is that the international community will force both sides to the negotiating table.
International Criminal Court?
If the diplomatic deadlock between Israel and Palestine is not broken soon, it is possible "that the Palestinians will undertake different desperate acts in an attempt to keep the Palestinian question on the international agenda," said Mekelberg. After observer status is recognized by the UN, Fatah could take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Fatah has promised not to take this step as long as European Union and countries like Britain and France support the application to the UN. "But the temptation might just be too great," said Mekelberg. That's mainly because the US and the EU are currently preoccupied with the global economic crisis and the effects of the Arab Spring, and are currently showing little interest in the Palestinian question.
Hirschson said the Palestinians are welcome to go to the ICC, but that they would be wasting their time, "and might well find themselves as defendants one day." Mekelberg hopes that both sides will agree to talk again.
Eid, on the other hand, has already bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate Palestine's new status with his friends - regardless of what happens next.