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The United Nations is poised to officially recognize the state of Palestine, an unprecedented international endorsement that would enable the Palestinians to prosecute Israeli officials for what the Palestinians claim are war crimes.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is set today to present the U.N.’s General Assembly (G.A.) with a resolution that would enhance the Palestinians’ official status from “observers” to “non-member observer status,” a designation that would allow the so-called state of Palestine to launch formal complaints against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other U.N legal bodies.
Critics fear this move would torpedo the peace process with Israel.
The resolution is expected to garner the support of more than 130 of the G.A.’s 193 members. This is the second time Abbas has sought to unilaterally circumvent the peace process by winning U.N. approval for the state of Palestine.
The U.S. maintains that Abbas’ U.N. bid is “counterproductive.”
“We view unilateral steps, including the bid for upgraded status to statehood—observer state status at the General Assembly—to be counterproductive and not take us closer to that goal, and, therefore, we strongly oppose it,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told reporters last week.
Abbas is likely to be victorious despite U.S. opposition.
“The emphasis has switched from whether the Palestinians will present the resolution—which [they] clearly will—and from whether it will get the votes—which it will—[because] there is an automatic majority for the [Palestinians] in the General Assembly,” said Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official. “The focus now, for the U.S. and [European Union], is whether the [P.A.] can be persuaded not to act rashly after it wins.”
Abbas’ failed 2011 bid at the U.N. drew sizable protests from American and Israeli leaders who threatened to cut both funding and support to U.N. members who supported the measure.
Yet the pro-Israel community and foreign policy experts appear significantly less concerned this time around.
While enhanced Palestinian status at the U.N. could cause trouble for Israel, Abbas will still be forced to work with the Jewish state on a range of issues including the long-stagnating peace process.
“This [U.N. bid] is probably not going to matter much and people know that this time around,” said David Pollock, a former Middle East adviser at the State Department. “It’s viewed as a lost cause so there’s not much point in getting too excited about it.”
There are “some silver linings here,” said Pollock, who currently serves as the Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Abbas’ governing coalition, for example, appears substantially more moderate following Hamas’ recent military conflict with Israel.
A victory at the U.N. is likely to give the increasingly irrelevant P.A. a much-needed morale boost and could even inject new life into the peace process, experts say.
“In the aftermath of the Gaza war, it appears that Obama, who has been a steadfast opponent of the U.N. bid, is now asking the Israelis to back down from threats of withholding funds, so long as the Palestinians don’t go to the ICC” or the International Court of Justice (ICJ), said Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department.
“The reason for this,” Schanzer said, is that “Abbas is irrelevant right now. Obama and others are trying to pump him back up and to demonstrate to the world that a non-violent strategy is the right one for Palestinian nationalists.”
Abbas is also seeking considerably less from the U.N. than he did in 2011.
“Last time they went for the brass ring: Full membership” at the U.N., which requires approval from the body’s Security Council (UNSC), Schanzer said. The U.S., a permanent member of the UNSC, had promised to veto the move.
Now Abbas seeks to upgrade Palestine’s observer status in the G.A. where the U.S. and its allies are powerless to stop member nations from granting approval in a general vote.
“Put differently, the numbers of countries that support them are roughly the same as last year. The difference is what they are trying to achieve, which is significantly less than 2011,” said Schanzer, who serves as vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
The resolution itself strikes a moderate tone in some respects, others noted.
“There are specific clauses in the draft resolution on various issues that are actually an improvement” over the P.A. past negotiating platforms with Israel, said Pollock.
The date of Thursday’s vote is also significant. On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. divided the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories.
Some fear Abbas’ move could backfire and further isolate the Palestinian cause on the international stage.
“Nothing so dramatizes the fact that ‘Palestine’ is not a state than this UN vote,” Abrams wrote recently for Council on Foreign Relations, where he serves as a fellow. “It is a tragedy for Palestinians that instead of actually building a decent, prosperous, democratic state, their leaders and their self-proclaimed well-wishers abroad seek this melodrama in Turtle Bay.”
If Abbas uses his newfound power to persecute Israel, he may find his own government under similar scrutiny, Abrams said.
“Israel can ask why he is committing acts of aggression against it week after week,” Abrams wrote. “I refer to rockets out of Gaza, which ‘Palestine’ claims as part of its sovereign territory. If Palestine is a state, and he leads it, surely he and his government are responsible for such terrorism.”