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More Quick Thoughts on Palestine at the United Nations

[President Barack Obama listens as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responds to a question during a joint meeting with the press in the Oval Office Thursday, May 28, 2009. Image by Pete Souza. From Wikimedia Commons.] [President Barack Obama listens as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responds to a question during a joint meeting with the press in the Oval Office Thursday, May 28, 2009. Image by Pete Souza. From Wikimedia Commons.]

The outcome of a United Nations General Assembly vote on enhanced membership status for Palestine has never been in question. The Palestinians will win, probably handily, because the international community overwhelmingly supports the Palestinian right to self-determination and opposes Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. Those openly opposing this vote can easily be counted on the fingers of an amputated hand: Israel; the United States, which is more pro-Israel than Israel itself; Canada, which is more pro-Israel than even the United States; and perhaps one or two Pacific islands casting one of their final UN votes since they will be rewarded for their obeisance by further North American carbon emissions and an attendant rise in the sea level.

Rather, this event should be considered on the basis of a number of related issues:

1. Will Abbas do it? For much of the past year there has been justified skepticism about Abbas's intentions. He repeatedly delayed. First, Abbas parked the application at the UN Security Council, where it was guaranteed to languish under US custodianship. Then, he postponed it until after the US presidential elections. Finally, he appeared to want to procrastinate further until after the January 2013 Israeli elections. Since Abbas remains confident Obama will commence the liberation of Palestine in 2013 or 2014, he most likely would have continued delaying matters.

What then happened was that events (and Abbas's own conduct) essentially forced his hand. First, he informed Israeli television of his personal disinterest in the right of return in order to assuage Israeli fears about Palestinian rights. This created an instantaneous firestorm among Palestinian public opinion, and put Abbas in the position of needing a quick fix to arrest the rapidly accelerating collapse of his remaining legitimacy. Then came the recent Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, and the resulting perception that Hamas is successfully confronting Israel while Abbas is hapless, helpless and (more dangerous yet) irrelevant in equal measure. This left him no choice but to go to New York. Presumably, he came under significant pressure from what is left of Fatah to act and act speedily as well. 

2. This is about quality not quantity. With the outcome of the UN vote never in doubt, the real question is whether the Palestinian UN bid will gain significantly more support, and garner significantly less opposition, than the 1988 proclamation of independence. There are already very encouraging signs in this respect. France is leading a very respectable group of EU member states to vote in favor. Germany, which is no longer the determined obstructionist within the EU it has been in years past, is abstaining. It seems no more than one or two insignificant EU members, if any, will vote against the status upgrade. Further beyond, even Australia is abstaining.

Within Europe, the British position is of particular interest. London has made its vote conditional on a Palestinian commitment to unconditionally resume participation in a peace process that does not (and that within the framework advocated, simply cannot) exist, as well as a Palestinian pledge to ensure Israeli impunity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) with respect to its war crimes. It appears to have obtained neither condition, but is nevertheless abstaining rather than voting against. For this, Abbas has Ahmad Ja’bari rather than David Cameron to thank.

The above notwithstanding, it has been painful to watch the unbridled glee and haste with which the Harper government is flushing Canada's international reputation for neutrality and support for international law - built up over decades - down the toilet and into the sewer.

More amusing have been US efforts to restrain the Israeli response to the UN vote. Since Palestinian success will trigger automatic US sanctions, the Obama administration wants to prevent the Netanyahu government from doing the same lest the Palestinian Authority collapse. The prospect of Washington pleading with Israel to limit sanctions against the PA to lessen the impact of US sanctions is, to say the least, utterly bizarre. But given the EU’s total abandonment of Israel on this specific issue, Israel’s freedom of action in the coming weeks will in any case be constrained. To be sure, a formal Israeli annulment of Oslo would have been icing on the cake. However, it is far from clear that Israel’s security establishment would have let Netanyahu and Lieberman run amok on election eve.

3. The real issue is what comes next. Anyone familiar with the position of Western governments knows that, for them, what this issue is really about is not the United Nations or Palestine’s status in the General Assembly but rather the International Criminal Court (ICC). They desperately do not want to have to make a choice between their commitment to Israeli impunity and their support for the ICC. That has worked so long as the ICC only goes after Africans. They are simply mortified that this may now change. Not only should they make that choice, they should be forced to make that choice in full public view. If this means the demise of the ICC and its inability to continue with the exclusive prosecution of Africans, so be it. We need a real court, and a willingness to prosecute Israeli war crimes is for many, and quite rightly, the litmus test of the court’s efficacy and utility. Parenthetically, it is Interesting that the same governments getting all bent out of shape about a UN vote and particularly the prospect of Israel having to account for its crimes have a policy of total indifference on Israeli settlement expansion and total support for "Israel's right to self-defence" every time it launches a murderous assault on the Palestinians. Indeed, when is the last time Victoria Nuland even alluded to the latest Israeli settlement announcement? Obama’s record in this respect has been significantly worse than even that of George W. Bush.

For the Palestinians, the key question is whether Abbas is using this as cover to resume utterly meaningless negotiations with Israel that serve only to consolidate occupation, or whether it is a step towards the internationalization of the Question of Palestine and therefore an irrevocable move away from the Oslo framework. There is in this respect an urgent requirement for a Palestinian national strategic consensus, so that this tactical move becomes part of a comprehensive national strategy rather than an initiative that is taken for personal or factional considerations. 

The not unrelated point is that to the extent the PA is punished (particularly financially) for this move, it reduces foreign leverage over the Palestinians to undertake absolutely essential maintenance work on the national movement, particularly insofar as ending the schism between Fatah and Hamas is concerned. To the extent it is not punished, it should serve as an object lesson in how to call a bluff and stand up to foreign pressure.

The key issue here is internationalization.

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