UN vote on statehood changes rules of Palestinian struggle
The look on Susan Rice's face said it all. The US representative at the United Nations had a bad day at the office last Thursday, when 138 nations voted for a General Assembly resolution to upgrade Palestine's status to a non-member observer state at the international body. Israel and the United States voted against, along with seven other countries, while 41 countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom abstained. It was a diplomatic fiasco for the Obama administration not because the resolution was passed, but because Washington could not persuade its closest European allies to adopt its position.
President Mahmoud Abbas has achieved an important, and rare, diplomatic victory for the Palestinians. The implicit recognition of the state of Palestine by the world community will prove to be an important catalyst in the decades-old quest to secure self-determination and an independent state in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip. Rice described Thursday's win as "unfortunate and counterproductive" while Israel dubbed it as "inconsequential." But in reality the historic vote was a clear message to an increasingly isolated Israel that the world could no longer tolerate its open-ended occupation and that it must accept the inevitability of Palestinian statehood.
Aside from the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and Panama, Washington had to rally the support of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau; hardly a credible coalition of nations. Voting in favor were many European countries, including France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Israel was stunned by the fact that Germany, one of its staunchest European supporters, decided to abstain rather than vote against.
The vote came in the wake of Israel's eight-day aggression on the Gaza Strip. That attack was halted as Israel came under regional and international pressure. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu could not fulfill the strategic aim of the offensive, which was to destroy Hamas' military infrastructure, especially its arsenal of missiles. The diplomatic defeat at the UN only added to Netanyahu's troubles.
The Gaza affair and the UN triumph have lifted Palestinian aspirations. President Abbas and the Hamas leadership have moved closer to concluding national reconciliation. It is a move that should bolster Palestinian political stand even more. If reconciliation takes place soon it would constitute a third defeat for Israel in less than a month.
On the ground, Israel's reaction to the UN vote was expected. In a defiant and arrogant move it announced the building of 3000 units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Furthermore, it decided to seize and withhold more than $ 120 million in Palestinian tax revenues in a move to punish the Palestinian Authority (PA). Further punitive measures are expected. It is a sign of desperation and isolation. Arab countries have promised to provide a financial safety net for the PA and their support for the Palestinian leadership at this juncture will prove crucial.
Despite Washington's rejection of the Palestinian UN move, it must realize that it has to redress the peace process and restore its credibility as an intermediary. It will have to find ways to deal with and engage a recalcitrant Israeli government that has frustrated the US administration before. Most likely Netanyahu will be re-elected next month and this will test the position of President Obama in his second term. If the US chooses not to take the lead in reviving the peace process in the coming few weeks, the Israeli government will surely bury any remaining hope for a negotiated settlement.
Palestine's new status will allow it to gain membership in international bodies, including the International Criminal Court. Taking its case to the ICC will be a last resort, as President Abbas has indicated. This last resort will only come if the US fails to revive the peace process and if Israel continues with its settlement activities in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Both scenarios are plausible.
Taking Israel to court will change the rules of engagement. What seemed impossible few years ago may become possible in the near future. The US cannot continue to protect Israeli transgressions forever. The Palestinians, on the other hand, cannot be expected to sit and do nothing as Israel devours more of their land.
It is imperative that Washington sends a clear message to Israel now. The UN vote, symbolic as it is, has changed the legal and political realities of the dispute. The State of Palestine is a fact and it will not wait for Israel to give it legitimacy. More than 20 years of negotiations under US auspices have failed to deliver a two- state solution. It is in Israel's interest to end its occupation and recognize Palestinian rights. Otherwise, the day will come when Israel could become an international pariah.