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Palestinian UN bid seeks 'to level the playing field'

With the UN set to vote on the Palestinian bid for full membership on Friday, FRANCE 24 spoke to Khaled Elgindy, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, about the political, diplomatic and practical implications of the move.


FRANCE 24: What is the probable outcome of the Palestinian bid for full UN recognition?

Khaled Elgindy: There is virtually no chance that Palestine will be admitted as a full member of the UN. Given the certainty of a US veto at the Security Council, the most likely scenario is for the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution that recognises Palestine as a “non-member state”, similar to the status of the Vatican.

F24: What are the political consequences of this move, regarding both Palestinian negotiations with Israel and relations between rival Palestinian factions?

UN member, non-member and observer status

There are currently 193 nations that are official UN members. According to the charter of the United Nations, “membership is open to peaceful nations that are willing and able to carry out the duties required by the charter”. Upon the recommendation of the Security Council, the General Assembly decides whether to approve a nation’s candidacy.

“Non-member” status can also be conferred, allowing certain countries, organisations or entities to benefit from collaborations with any of the UN’s specialised agencies, such as the World Health Organisation or the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Non-member status comes with the right to file for “permanent observer” status, which grants permission to attend UN General Assembly meetings. The Vatican and the Palestinian Authority currently have observer status.

KE: The political consequences of the Palestinian UN bid will, to a large extent, depend on how Israel, the US, and other international actors respond to whatever vote takes place in New York. Both Israel and the US Congress have threatened major punitive measures if the Palestinians go through with the UN bid, many of which could ultimately harm American and Israeli interests at least as much as – if not more than – those of Palestinians. Should Israel carry through with its threats to annex large swaths of West Bank territory, cancel the Oslo Accords or withhold tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, any or all of these could easily backfire by hastening the Palestinian Authority’s collapse, which would probably mean the end of the two-state solution itself. Congressional threats to cut off aid to the PA may be equally self-defeating, given the importance of Palestinian security coordination for Israel and, over the long term, could lead to the same end.

F24: How does the UN bid alter the diplomatic situation for the United States, European countries and other intermediary players in the Mideast peace process?

KE: The extent to which the UN bid will alter the diplomatic situation depends on how various international actors – particularly the United States and Europe – behave before, during and after the UN vote. By going to the UN, the Palestinians are in effect violating two central tenets of the Middle East peace process: one, that only the US can lead the process, and two, that the Quartet (comprising the US, EU, Russia and the UN) is the only suitable international forum for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obviously, this has not been well received by the US administration. A US veto will certainly harm America’s credibility in the Arab world – though perhaps not as significantly as may be feared, given that US standing in the region is already quite low in the context of the Arab Spring and the failed peace process.   

This may also spell the end of the Quartet, which had already outlived its usefulness long ago – with one member openly opposing the move (US), another openly supporting it (Russia), the EU divided and the UN serving as the venue where it all takes place.

While there is also some apprehension in Europe about the Palestinian plan, the EU is far less hostile to the move than the US, and in fact may have its own reasons for opposing American domination of the peace process. Indeed, Europe has emerged as the crucial battleground in the diplomatic battle between those who support Palestinian UN recognition and those who oppose it, which has given the EU and key European actors like France unprecedented prominence and leverage – certainly more than its involvement in the Quartet could have offered.

F24: What would be the tangible, day-to-day consequences of this outcome for Palestinians living in the territories?

KE: The recognition of Palestine as a “non-member state” would have no impact on the day-to-day living conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But that is not what it is intended to do. Rather, in going to the UN, Mahmoud Abbas is attempting to regain some badly needed political leverage vis-à-vis Israel and the US, as well as help shore up his leadership’s sagging legitimacy and declining domestic political standing. It is motivated by a belief, long held by ordinary Palestinians and only recently arrived at by Abbas’s leadership, that two decades of “peace processing” has not only failed to bring Palestinians closer to freedom but has actually helped deepen Israel’s occupation and weaken Palestinian institutions. Twenty years after the launch of face-to-face talks, the West Bank is more fragmented, Gaza’s population more besieged, Israeli settlers entrenched, and the Palestinian political leadership more divided and dependent on foreign support than ever. By going to the UN, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) is trying to level the playing field rather than change the game altogether.


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