People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 43

October 23, 2011

Palestine’s Historic UN Bid: Pros & Cons



Yohannan Chemarapally


THE Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas finally walked the talk. In the third week of September he handed over a formal letter requesting full membership in the United Nations Organisation for the state of Palestine. The Palestinians were taking a leaf from the Israeli book. Israel had used the same diplomatic tactic in 1947 to gain international recognition.  Though the consequences of that decision have been horrendous for the Palestinians and the Arab world, the legality of the move has never been questioned.


But in the world today, different yardsticks are applied to different countries. In the months preceding the UNGA meet, the Obama administration had subjected the Palestinian leadership to tremendous diplomatic pressure in its efforts to dissuade them from seeking full fledged membership of the world organisation. Among other threats, the Obama administration has threatened to withhold aid to the Palestinians. The government of Israel had also been issuing dire diplomatic and military threats to the PA, including a warning that it would withhold the tax money it collects on behalf of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.


But this time Abbas and the PA leadership did not buckle under American pressure. President Abbas’s speech on September 23 in which he dramatically detailed the pain and suffering of the Palestinians in the last sixty three years was the highlight of this year’s UNGA meeting. “I do not believe that anyone with a shred of conscience can reject our application for a full membership in the United Nations and our admission as an independent state”, he said. His speech this time to the assembled heads of State was more reminiscent of the speeches of his charismatic predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Many observers in fact compared Abbas’s speech to Arafat’s landmark 1974 speech. Arafat brandishing a holster in one hand and an olive branch in the other hand had in an emotional address told the UN general assembly—“Today I have come, bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand”. Abbas also spoke in a similar vein but was careful to omit any references to the “gun” while still offering the “olive branch”.


Abbas is usually not given to such rhetorical flourishes but his emotion laden speech was also a powerful message to the international community. This time, he did not shy away from mentioning issues like the “right of return” and the plight of the millions of Palestinians living their lives as refugees in other countries. Palestinians in Ramallah and refugee camps all over the Arab world cheered for Abbas after a long time. With negotiations going nowhere coupled with exposes about Palestinian negotiators kowtowing before the Americans and Israelis, Abbas’s popularity ratings had plummeted. The UN initiative has not only restored his popularity but is currently at an all time high. Abbas, who has said on several occasions that he would not stand for elections again, seems intent to bow out with his head held high.


A recent poll showed that more than 80 per cent of the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem have supported the PA’s bid for full UN membership. Hamas and other influential groups among the Palestinians had opposed the move by Abbas to go to the UN at this juncture, fearing that it would compromise the historical rights of the Palestinians relating to issues like the “right of return” and borders.  


Waving a copy of the application for full statehood which he had earlier submitted to the UN secretary general, Ban ki-Moon, he called for the statehood request to be expedited in the Security Council. According to reports, the majority of countries who are currently on the Security Council have already pledged support for full Palestinian statehood. The number of votes needed for statehood to be recognised is nine. Among the non-permanent members currently in the Security Council, Nigeria, Gabon and Bosnia-Herzegovina are not yet fully committed to vote for Palestine. But Palestinian diplomats are confident that these countries would come on board and that the magic figure of nine needed for recognition will be reached. It was clear from the standing ovation that president Abbas got after his speech that the overwhelming majority of the UN members want Palestine to take a seat besides them. “No one with a shred of conscience can reject our application”, Abbas had said in his speech.


But a veto by one of the five permanent members is sufficient to temporarily derail the Palestinian bid even if a symbolic political victory is achieved in the Security Council. President Barack Obama in his speech at the UNGA has pledged to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood. With an American veto almost inevitable barring some miraculous eleventh hour developments, the Palestinians will have no other option but to approach the UN General Assembly and ask for Palestine’s membership to be upgraded to a non-member observer status. Such a status, according to experts in international legal law would allow Palestine to join organisations like the International Criminal Court (ICC). The PA has indicated that it wants the UNSC to expeditiously take up the issue of full membership and a vote taken in early October.




With presidential elections next year, Obama has once again abjectly caved in to the influential Jewish lobby in American politics. The Nobel Peace laureate in his speech seemed to be totally oblivious to the plight of the Palestinians. Hannan Ashrawi, the articulate voice of the Fattah, who had accompanied Abbas to New York, told the Israeli daily, Haaretz that she did not believe what she had heard in Obama’s speech. “It sounded as though it was the Palestinians who were occupying Israel. There wasn’t one word of empathy for the Palestinians”. It was the same Obama who in his speech at the UNGA last year had waxed eloquently about the possibility of “the sovereign State of Palestine” soon becoming the 194th member of the UN. In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama had emphasised on the importance of dismantling the illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Obama’s performance was yet another glaring evidence of the Israeli tail wagging the American dog. His views did not even reflect the views of most Americans as a recent opinion survey showed. A large number of American Jews in fact want Palestinians to have a State of their own. Obama has now ended up embracing the Zionist position on Palestine.


“The American administration did everything in its power to disrupt our project but we are going through with it despite the obstacles and the pressure because we are asking for our rights”, Abbas said in a speech to the Palestinian community in New York. There is a fear among the Palestinians and their supporters that the US will use its influence in the UNSC to delay a vote on the membership issue. A US veto is bound to create a political backlash in the Arab and Muslim world. President Obama does not want to be distracted by another international crisis as he prepares to campaign for re-election.


 Abbas also held out the olive branch by reiterating that the Palestinians still remain committed to peace talks. But he again reiterated that for talks to resume Israel has to cease settlement activity and adhere to the 1967 borders. The Palestinian leader said that previous peace talks collapsed because of the intransigence of the Israeli government. When talks had briefly resumed in September last year, the right wing government in Israel torpedoed it by accelerating settlement building in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. After the PA formally sought statehood, the US, the EU and Russia have announced that they have reached an agreement for the resumption of talks between Israel and Palestine. President Abbas however is not ready to be diverted from the goal of statehood. He has said that he would only go back to the table if the Palestinian conditions for the resumption of talks are accepted. In the last couple of months, Israel has on the contrary been accelerating its illegal settlement activities.


One of the key reasons Abbas and his advisers decided to go to the UN was to clear the path for the prosecution of Israeli government officials for war crimes and transgression of international law in the International Criminal Court and other UN mandated institutions. Even if the Palestinians at this juncture only succeed in getting non-member observer status, it could enable their State to atleast join treaties like the Law of the Sea. Such a development would help Palestine to challenge the illegal Israel sea blockade of Gaza. The Palestinian leadership hopes that UN membership will force groups like the EU to take a position on Israel’s continuing trampling of international law. After the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace agreement which was supposed to lead to full statehood for Palestine, the Israelis instead pock marked the West Bank with settlements, pushing in 600,000 more settlers.


In December 2010, 26 former EU leaders had called for sanctions to be imposed on Israel for the illegal settlement activity on the West Bank and Jerusalem. EU headquarters in Brussels remained unmoved. However the forthcoming vote in the UN on Palestinian statehood is sure to divide the EU. France already has indicated that it is sympathetic to the Palestinian move while Germany has already announced that it would go along with Israel and the US. American hypocrisy over the Palestine issue will be further highlighted especially in the context of the Obama administration’s zeal to institute regime change and democracy by laser bombing in Arab countries opposed to Israel. In the Arab world, America would find it difficult to retain its traditional allies. The former Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, Turki al- Faisal, writing in influential US publications warned that Saudi-American relations could be irreparably harmed if the Obama administration vetoes the Palestinian statehood bid in the UNSC. Faisal, a senior prince in the ruling al-Saud family, is an influential figure in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia besides supplying oil to the US is also a firm backer of Washington in the region.   




Many Palestinian critics of the statehood bid have not softened their stance after Abbas’s spirited performance in the UN. The Hamas spokesperson said that the bid would undercut the Palestinians right to return. “I don’t believe that the Palestinians want a seat in the UN, but rather they want freedom and self determination in their own land”, he said. Dawood Shehab, the spokesman for the Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian faction, observed that 120 countries had recognised Palestine as a State after the famous speech by Yasser Arafat in Algiers in 1988 announcing the arrival of the State of Palestine. Shehab said that no tangible benefits followed for the Palestinians despite the de facto recognition of their statehood by the majority of the UN members. “All factions within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) have aimed at liberating Palestine, not establishing a State. A State comes after liberating Palestine”, said Shehab.


Critics of the new initiative also debunk the notion that UN membership will help the Palestinian in making Israel accountable for the litany of war crimes and other infringements of international law. Those opposed to Abbas point out that the PA did not seriously pursue international legal channels to hold Israel accountable after the 2004 International Court of Justice ruling that deemed the construction of the Separation Wall and settlements on occupied territories as illegal. Another serious allegation against the PA is that it first tried to bury the Goldstone Report on Israel’s assault on Gaza under pressure from Washington and Tel Aviv. When there was an international outcry, the PA reverted course but then did nothing to get the recommendations adopted by the UN.


The fear among Palestinians, especially those in the Diaspora is that recognition of the 1967 borders would close the doors for the Palestinian refugees holed up in camps in Syria and other neighbouring countries. A Palestinian State based on the 1967 borders would comprise of only 22 per cent of historic Palestine. Even in the part of Palestine they could inherit, Israeli settlements have monopolised the best land and most of the natural and scarce water resources. The UN anyway has consistently recognised the Palestinian people, regardless of their place of residence “as the principle party in the question of Palestine”. Leftist groups in PLO like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have been generally supportive of the statehood bid. A PFLP leader, Rabah Mhanna said that his group considers the UN bid as part of the ongoing struggle against Israeli occupation. But he cautioned that going to the UN “should not end up with improving the bilateral peace negotiations under US patronage”. Mhanna admitted that the PA’s move to apply for statehood was not backed by a Palestinian consensus.


Joseph Massad, who lectures on modern Arab history and intellectual history at Colombia University, recently wrote a thought provoking article on the latest diplomatic initiative. He wrote that the UN would not be able to resolve issues relating to the borders or human rights violations. Palestine, Massad observed, “is a mini-State with a disfigured geography and no sovereignty”. Massad is of the opinion that it is Washington’s unblinking support to Israel and the methods it has used to stonewall the legitimate demands of the Palestinians that lies at the root of the problem. The US has used its veto 40 times on behalf of its ally, Israel, on resolutions pertaining to the occupation in the UNSC.


“The unending ‘peace process’ will continue with more stringent conditions and an angry US upset at the PA challenge, will go back exactly to where the PA is today, if not to a weaker position. President Obama and future US administrations will continue to push for PA and Arab recognition for Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ that has the right to discriminate by law against non-Jews in exchange for an ever-deferred recognition of a Palestinian state—a place where Palestinian neoliberal businessmen can make profits off international aid and investment”, Massad has observed. Abu Abunimah, a Palestinian activist who started the widely read on-line journal Electronic Intifada and is the author of the book One Country: A Bold proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, has said that the PA did not have the “democratic mandate” from the Palestinian people to go to the UN or “to gamble with their rights and future”.