By Geoffrey Paul, Middle East Specialist Based in London
Coincidence or historical irony? Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas goes to the UN General Assembly on Thursday to seek an upgrade in the international status of Palestine from “permanent observer” at the UN to “non-member observer state,” the same status as enjoyed by the Vatican. His bid comes 65 years to the day since, on November 29, 1947, the UN passed a resolution calling for the establishment of separate Arab and Jewish states in the British mandated territory of Palestine.
This is the second attempt by Mr Abbas in 14 months to achieve international recognition for his state. Last year, he failed in his bid to win Security Council recognition as a full member state of the UN because Council members could not achieve the required unanimous vote of permanent members in favour. This year, he has tempered ambitions by going to the General Assembly of the UN, where only a simple majority is required, and by asking for something less than full statehood. He will get overwhelming support there. That is assured by the votes of Arab, African, non-aligned and friendly nations which have already said they will back him.
The Palestinian move is strongly opposed by the Israel Government which argues that the final status of the West Bank and Gaza can only be achieved by direct negotiation and that, by going to the UN, Mr Abbas is seeking to achieve statehood by other means. He will not have the backing of the United States or of all the West Europeans. Many members of the European Union have chosen to stand on the side-lines until the moment of the vote, but allies of Mr Abbas claim they are sure of the votes of 13 of the 27 EU members. With President Sarkozy, they had been sure of French support. But his successor, Francois Hollande, has injected a degree of uncertainty by talk of “risks” in the Palestinian bid and by failing at their last meeting to give Mr Abbas the assurance of support he had gone to Paris to secure. However, the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, last week implied France would probably vote in favour. This divergence within one EU member-state is indicative of the uncertainty among most of them.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is opposed to Palestinian “unilateralism”, but her Foreign Minister has implied he would approve a favourable vote. The British have strongly advised Mr Abbas not to proceed with his UN bid. Earlier this month, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told Parliament: “We judge that this [UN bid] would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations, and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian Authority. Our collective goal must be a two state solution based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and a just settlement for refugees. So while we support Palestinian aspirations and understand the pressures on President Abbas, we urge him to lead the Palestinians into negotiations and not to risk paralysing the process.”
Over the weekend, however. London newspapers suggested that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nicholas Clegg, who is leader of the Liberal Democrats, was lobbying his coalition partner and Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, to support the Palestinians. (Update-On Nov. 28, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced UK will abstain on the issue.)
Expert European observers expect the European vote to generally follow the pattern of last year when, in voting on Palestinian admission to UNESCO, those in favour were Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia and Spain; against were Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden; abstainers were Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and the UK. This time, however, Cyprus may join the “No” voters, following a warming in its commercial relationship with Israel.
But, on this issue, European intentions are hard to call even this close to a vote. Adding to this uncertainty is the ultimate potency of the argument that, following the display of Hamas military capability in the recent Gaza conflict, Mr Abbas and his more moderate approach need the encouragement of international support if his followers are not to desert to Hamas.
While many of the Palestinian President's supporters on the West Bank, where his Fatah movement is in control, have demonstrated only lukewarm support for non-member observer status, a number of Hamas leaders, who control the Gaza province of the putative state, have, until the start of this week, treated the UN bid with indifference or even hostility. At worst, they say, it will give recognition to Israel, even if Mr Abbas insists it will be an Israel inside its 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as Palestine's capital. At best – well no Hamas spokesman has come up with an at best, although, at the beginning of this week, Hamas leaders were suggesting they would not openly oppose or criticise Mr Abbas.
Despite the critics at home and abroad, a positive General Assembly vote, even if it lacked the backing of some of the major world powers, would not necessarily be a pyrrhic victory. It would allow Palestinian delegates to participate in General Assembly debates and open the way to recognition for Palestine as a “state” by such international agencies as the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Labour Office, although the process is neither automatic nor guaranteed. However, by accepting Palestine as a full member state, these and other agencies would run the risk of losing US financial support, as did UNESCO when $60 million in US funding was withdrawn following its acceptance last year of Palestine as a state member.
One body in which the US is not involved and which would not be threatened by its withholding of financial assistance is the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. Israel, like the US, is a not a member of the ICC, whose jurisdiction is limited to adjudicating alleged crimes either committed in a state which accepts its jurisdiction or by a state which has accepted its jurisdiction. However, a change in Palestinian status at the ICC, could, for example, allow the court to reconsider its earlier decision not to investigate the 2008 Israeli offensive on Gaza.
While Arab sources at the beginning of this week suggested Israeli leaders were unhappy with the failure of the US to mount maximum pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw his UN bid, French officials confirmed that, in October, the US circulated a confidential memo to EU member states urging them not to support the Palestinian Authority's bid to upgrade its status. The Guardian newspaper earlier claimed that the US had warned European governments "to support [US] efforts" to block the bid, and threatened "significant negative consequences" including financial sanctions if Palestine secured an upgrade to its UN status.
Whether Mr Abbas has been bold or foolhardy in chancing his hand against such strong pressures to hold back can only be judged after the fact. Will the US, as it has threatened in the past, halt its aid to the Palestinian Authority or will the Europeans reduce theirs? Will the Israelis stop handing over taxes and duty collected for the Palestinian Authority? Without these sources of financial support, or unlikely Arab replacement, any version of a Palestinian state would suffer dire economic consequences and could risk even greater political and civil instability. Are these risks that the US, Europe or Israel are willing to contemplate, or has Mr Abbas chanced his hand knowing he must win?Geoffrey Paul is former editor of the Jewish Chronicle