A full sixty-five years after the United Nations celebrated a UN vote to split the Mandate of Palestine into two states, thus creating the state of Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stood before the General Assembly of the UN and called upon its 193 Member States, “to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine.” The General Assembly obliged, by a margin of 138 in favour, 41 abstentions and 9 opposed. Resolution A/67/L.28, Status of Palestine to the United Nations, was duly adopted.
Palestine achieved the simple majority vote needed in the GA to gain ‘non-member state’ status, on par with the Vatican, and a step above their current ‘permanent observer entity’ status. However, this also falls short of the request for ‘full member state’ status that Abbas tried to bring before the United Nations Security Council last year. That request was ultimately stymied before being brought to the Security Council, the only UN institution that can grant ‘full member state’ status.
The main achievement of the resolution may be that the Palestinians could bring Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is not a part of the UN system but rather an independent body. Article 125 of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document, declares that ‘all States’ may join the Court. Drafted at a time when Switzerland wasn’t part of the UN (they joined in 2002) it encompasses ‘non-member states’ status. However, Israel is not a signatory to the ICC and there are questions over ICC jurisdiction here. Even more pressing will be questions of whether Abbas would actually take the step, having himself deferred taking the 2009 UN Human Rights Council ‘Goldstone Report’ to the ICC. Also called into question is whether the Palestinians themselves could be called to the ICC for actions of militants their government cannot control.
Membership to other UN agencies and organs as a ‘non-member state’ will also need to occur on a case-by-case basis, where hurdles will also exist. The starkest example of negative ramifications of joining against the wishes of the U.S. or Israel occurred last year when Palestine joined the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a full-member. The U.S. promptly cut its $80 million to the agency, an estimated 20% of its budget.
As for the vote, it is commonly accepted that few countries want to be first to show their cards when voting on a resolution as contentious as this one. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was always going to vote yes. Sudan introduced the resolution on behalf of the OIC, perhaps hoping no one would notice Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir himself is wanted on an outstanding ICC warrant.
It was known that the U.S. was always going to vote ‘no’. Shortly after the vote, Ambassador Rice issued a stern response condemning the vote as counter productive and that, “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.” President Obama is rumoured to have offered himself as mediator if Abbas didn’t take the step to the GA. How he and his team will now deal with voting ‘no’, and the perceived decline of the U.S. ability to broker a solution remains to be seen.
Israel entered the months before the vote strongly opposed to bringing the resolution to the GA, but as the date drew closer, and adoption looked certain, the unofficial policy was to downplay the matter. But then violence appeared yet again in Gaza in late November. Memories of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza did Israel no favours and international opinion turned even further away from the Israelis.
Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, traveled to the U.S. but was instructed to remain in Washington to reduce official representation at the UN. It was left to Ambassador Prosor to appeal one last time to the Member States. His remarks included the blunt reminder, “President Abbas, you can’t even visit nearly half the territory of the state you claim to represent.” The Israeli reaction the next day was to increase settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank’s E1 area by 3,000. Palestinian diplomats anticipated the move as inevitable ‘punishment’ for going to the GA. With an end to settlement building as a precondition to talks for the PA, how negotiations can continue remains an open question.
The current Canadian administration has made no secret of where it was going to vote. With the exception of Israel, only Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird took the podium to ‘oppose [the] resolution in the strongest terms’ for ‘its unilateral nature’ before the vote. After the vote, Canada found itself voting ‘no’ in a minority of nine that included the U.S., Israel, the Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Palau, Micronesia and Nauru.
The Canadian ‘no’ vote stands in line with the perceived and real anti-UN stance that has roots in the recent report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) criticizing the Canadian government for its treatment of Indigenous Peoples and high levels of poverty. Losing a rotating seat on the Security Council to Portugal also did not help matters. But most glaring has been Canada’s support of Israel against the Palestinians in virtually every committee, resolution and agency to be voted on at the UN.
This situation was further enforced when Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, followed through on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s personal warning to Abbas, delivered at the GA in September, of ramifications if a vote was held. Although the full closure of the PA embassy was not threatened, Baird did call Canadian envoys to the Middle East and the UN back to Ottawa to ‘review its relationship with the Palestinian Authority’. While the diplomats have been temporarily called back, the Canadian government is contemplating cutting $300 million in aid funding to the Palestinians. Canadian analysts have lamented that the response will irreparably damage Canada’s role in the region, at the UN, and internationally, if it hasn’t already.
Germany and Italy stood out by stating that they would vote against but murmurs were growing that they would join a larger consensus of those quietly stating that they would vote in favour. The recent attacks in Gaza went a long way in changing the votes from ‘no’ to ‘abstain.’ The lack of a solution to the conflict meant that those murmurs would also never amount to a common ‘yes’ vote. The UK was a firm ‘no’ that sought to change to ‘yes’ on assurances that the Palestinians would not seek ways to revert to the ICC. When such assurances were not gained, they abstained.
The Czech Republic stayed firm on their ‘no’, choosing domestic politics over a relatively unified EU position of ‘yes’ and ‘abstain’. This led to a dreaded three-way split and again calls into question the foreign policy role the EU can play. As if that wasn’t enough, Ukraine somehow managed not to be present and made no choice at all.
But will the change in status mean anything on the ground? More than anything, the move is seen as a means for embattled PA President Mahmoud Abbas to remain relevant on the Palestinian political scene. Abbas is widely seen as without a popular base, corrupt and derided as Israel’s police officer. His policy of following the non-violent means to statehood promised in the Oslo Accords has borne little fruit and frustration is high. And yet, the situation remains better than in Gaza, where even daily caloric intake is controlled by Israel.
In Gaza, Hamas was recently able to negotiate a ceasefire and ease the blockade against the sea-side Strip largely as a result of its rocket attacks. It might still have official status as terrorist group by the US, the EU and Canada, but its popularity after the eight days of violence is growing. While there is strong debate over whether Hamas emerged as the victor from the conflict with Israel, that it gained points on Fatah is a certainty.
But Hamas is itself divided over how to proceed. There is an external leadership, led by Khaled Meshaal, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. It was Meshaal who called Abbas to encourage him to go ahead with the resolution. How this affects the internal dynamics of a possible reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is yet another unknown variable.
Domestically, little will change for those already in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. Even less will change for those Palestinian refugees languishing in camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring countries. Their future status is uncertain and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations that are presently not occurring.
There are many possibilities for a notoriously complicated situation. But on Thursday, November 26, 2012 – 65 years to the day of the Partition of Palestine, Abbas stood before the GA, the ‘prestigious international forum, representative and protector of international legitimacy” to “reaffirm our conviction that the international community now stands before the last chance to save the two-State solution.” The chance may already be gone, taking the symbolism that came with it. A stateless people remain, for all practical purposes, stateless. What the leaders will now do with the symbolic birth certificate of a State of statelessness remains to be seen.
Gus Constantinou is a freelancer writer at the UN.