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Palestine Analysis: A 6-Point Guide to the "Style and No Substance" of the UN Vote for Statehood

Mahmoud Abbas Addressing the UNThe United Nations General Assembly, by a 138-9 vote with 41 abstentions, has made Palestine an Observer State.   

The US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice called the resolution “counter-productive” while Israeli leaders downplayed Thursday’s result. Hamas gave a compulsory but unenthusiastic clap for the outcome.

The upgrade in status at the UN will not be produce a two-state solution in weeks. Indeed, there is still no practical alternative to the reality before Palestine, with a political stalemate not only between Israel and the Palestinians but also between Gaza and the West Bank.

A 6-Point Guide....

What Was Abbas' Motivation? 

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, the "President" of the West Bank, declared long before this month's eight-day Gaza War that there would be no negotiations ahead of the UN vote. Having failed to get recognition at the Security Council in September 2011, Abbas continued the campaign on the grounds that legitimisation in the international arena would increase the pressure on Israel to break the deadlock and boost his bargaining power vis-à-vis Hamas-ruled Gaza for a unity government.

International recognition was even more important for Abbas following Hamas’s  “victory” against Israel this month. To balance Hamas’ popularity and to position himself as the sole representative of all Palestinians, Abbas mentioned Gazans and the “violence” inflicted upon them four times during his speech! 

What Does An Observer State Do?

A Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders is recognised, but it is not a full member of the UN. Like the Vatican, it can participate in discussions but cannot vote in the General Assembly. The immediate advantage after last night is that Palestine can become a member of UN-affiliated agencies. The most important of these is the International Criminal Court, through which Ramallah can call for investigations over the “illegal” activities of the “occupier” inside the “occupation territories” and for the prosecution of Israeli officials inside the West Bank. 

So Will Abbas Go to the International Court?

No. That is why this move is no more than a symbolic gain for Palestinians. Abbas know well that such an attempt would mean crossing a red line with Israel and the US, which could destroy his envisaged state economically. 

What is West Jerusalem’s Position?

Israeli leaders had called upon Ramallah not to go to the UN, threatening unilateral steps such as the abolition of the principles in the 1993 Oslo Declaration, withholding of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, and even re-occupation of some areas of the West Bank.

These were bluffs. The Netanyahu Government knows that it has no better partner than Abbas and aggressive move would further shake Israel’s legitimacy in the international arena. So Israeli leaders will move --- as officials told Haaretz this week --- in a "measured" and "controlled" manner.  First and foremost, they will call on Abbas to keep his promise and return to the negotiation table without pre-conditions.

The Israeli Prime Minister's office has already issued a statement:

This is a meaningless decision that will not change anything on the ground. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that there will be no establishment of a Palestinian state without a settlement that ensures the security of Israel's citizens. He will not allow a base for Iranian terrorism to be established in Judea and Samaria, in addition to those that have [already] been established in Gaza and Lebanon. The way to peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah is in direct negotiations, without preconditions, and not in one-sided UN decisions. By going to the UN, the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel and Israel will act accordingly.

The threat over the "controlled" approach is none-too-subtly constructed. While Israel will negotiate, it will not tolerate a delay and unilateral Palestinian steps that could lead to a “Hamastan” backed, and even organised by Iran. 

What About Hamas?

Before the UN vote, Hamas sent mixed signals. The organisation's political director Khaled Mashal reportedly called Abbas and saidhe would “welcome” his bid as long as  “a national and strategic vision preserve the national rights and principles”. Azzam al-Ahmed, a top Fatah official in the West Bank, praised Mashaal for supporting the statehood bid as a “step in the right direction".

However, Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, was not as welcoming: he declared Abbas was going to the UN to ask for a “rugged state.”

Having politically benefited from Israel’s Iran-oriented policy by drawing West Jerusalem's jets into Gaza and then claiming "victory", Hamas is bound to congratulate Abbas’ move at the United Nations; however, it will look to dismiss the potential effects as soon as possible, putting forth its own vision of a Palestinian advance. This will still based on a vision of the 1967 borders, but Hamas will seek Israel's public acknowledgement, bowing to Palestine's "resistance", rather than the precondition of yet more negotiations. 

What is To Be Expected?

With the Israeli elections in January and with no immediate alternative, Prime Minister Netanyahu will put out milder statements on negotiations while still holding up the spectre of Iran. 

The Obama Administration is expected to emphasise negotiations in its second term. However, locked into the Israeli interpretation of "security", there is little prospect of compromise that can break the current deadlock.

If Ramallah and West Jerusalem do agree tangible "confidence-building" measures, the complication will be more tension between Gaza and West Bank, bringing a marginal advance on one front but no prospect of resolution on another.

What the UN recognised in practice last night was the Observer State of the West Bank. That does nothing to address a fundamental issue: until the world cares for national unity between Gaza and the West Bank as much as it supposedly does for negotiations between Israel and Ramallah, the substance --- as opposed to the symbols --- of the political stalemate will remain.

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