More than 138 countries, including many EU states, Russia, China, India and Brazil, voted on Thursday to upgrade Palestine to a nonmember observer state of the United Nations. Israel the U.S. and seven other states, including Canada, Czech Republic and Panama, voted against the resolution. Forty-one nations, including the UK and Germany, abstained.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid for full UN membership last year. Concerns and critiques of this vote abound, but it represents an important step towards Palestinian statehood and a beacon of hope for Palestinians.
This new status will give the Palestinians access to international legal forums that could be used to challenge Israel for its activities in occupied territories, such as through joining the International Criminal Court.
This status would also allow Palestine to seek membership to other specialized United Nations agencies, which may endanger the agencies’ funding as U.S. Congress members have vowed to cut off financing to any agencies that have accepted Palestine as a member as they did to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO in 2011.
Prior to the vote, the United States has threatened to cut assistance to the Palestinian Authority in an effort to persuade Abbas to delay the vote. Since the Obama administration has recently taken efforts to restore funding to UNESCO after last year’s decision to cut it, some reports claim that this has shown Abbas that the United States is not serious about these threats.
Media reports prior to the vote suggested Israel will not take any dramatic action in response to the UN vote, which suggests Israel is cautious about issues that may arise if the already weakened Palestinian Authority were to collapse during peace negotiations.
“We examined different ways to react, but eventually the ministers realized that almost whatever we do will hurt Israel at least as much as it will hurt the Palestinians,” a senior Israeli source told Haaretz, “If the [Palestinian] Authority collapses, it will fall on our heads. We don’t have to draw fire immediately after the vote – it’s preferable for the Palestinians to be under pressure to renew the negotiations, as they promised.”
Abbas has, indeed, promised to return to talks immediately after the U.N. vote. Saying that the recognition would be used as leverage in future talks with Israel and not as a tool for confronting or delegitimizing Israel, Abbas aims "to breathe new life into the negotiations." He commits to acting "responsively and positively" in their next steps.
Reactions to the vote are as expected — on either extreme. Secretary Clinton has critiqued the vote, calling it ‘counterproductive’ and ‘unfortunate’ as an obstacle to peace.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said he was concerned that the Palestinian Authority failed to recognize Israel and the ongoing indirect negotiations, “Three months ago, Israel’s prime minister stood in this very hall and extended his hand in peace to President Abbas;” the prime minister’s remarks including comments on a two state solution.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the vote “meaningless” and accused Abbas of spreading "mendacious propaganda" against Israel in a speech he rejected as "defamatory and venomous." "The resolution in the U.N. today won't change anything on the ground," Netanyahu said. "It won't advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off."
Yet the one-third positive vote amongst the UN General Assembly may show new backing for Palestine and Abbas during a difficult time for Middle Eastern politics, Abbas’ political stability and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Some Israeli citizens supported the vote, Meir Javendanfar said, “in the fight for peace, we have to strengthen the moderates, and I believe that the PLO under Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership is interested in peace. I also believe that he is a partner we can work with.” Javendanfar also cited six former heads of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency for support working with Palestinians for the future of Israel.
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, may have summed up the future reality of the vote by saying, “today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”
PolicyMic Pundit Abdulrahman El-Sayed had a different opinion — that the vote is a move to placate the PA against Hamas and was event completed with tacit approval of Israel and the U.S. Thus, El-Sayed did not view the vote as a win, simply a distraction from bigger issues. But this perspective leaves out the value that hope towards future progress will bring to Palestinian morale and, perhaps, good will towards the peace process if Israeli reaction is neutral, as promised, rather than antagonistic.
Despite the possible negative impacts on a now decades-long peace process and the limited impact it may have on the daily lives of Palestinians, the vote is significant for Palestine and its citizens. It is a small step towards the full statehood that it has yearned for and its citizens deserve. This is best summed up by Palestinian civil servant Mohammed Srour, "it's a great feeling to have a state, even if in name only. The most beautiful dream of any man is to have an independent state, particularly for us Palestinians who have lived under occupation for a long time."