How did we get to this point? Why is Mahmoud Abbas taking his initiative to the UN?
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During the last four years, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has reached a dead end and there was little to no trust between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Palestinians have claimed that Netanyahu, unlike other Israeli premiers, refuses to engage in real, meaningful talks about establishing borders for a future Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with exchanges of territory.
For its part, Israel claims that Abbas has demanded preconditions that are unlike any previous terms for talks with Israel in the past. One of Abbas's two main demands is a moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank, something that Netanyahu has adamantly refused. The Israeli leader claims that when Israel did agree to a 10-month freeze on settlement building, the Palestinians still refused to direct negotiations.
The diplomatic freeze with Israel, the Palestinians' internal diplomatic crisis, Hamas's empowerment in the wake of the Arab Spring and the recent conflict in Gaza have all contributed to Abbas's decision to follow through with his bid, and to prove that he can produce some achievements for the Palestinian people. He also hoped that taking this bid to the UN would keep the Palestinian issue on the international agenda and increase pressure on Israel.
But didn’t we already see this same scenario play out last September?
Yes, but not in the same way. In September 2011 the Palestinians had hoped for a UN Security Council vote that would have them recognized as a full-fledged member state of the organization. The Palestinians needed nine out of 15 votes for their bid to succeed, but managed to garner only eight.
So what's changed?
After the Palestinians failed to secure a Security Council vote, they changed course and sought a General Assembly vote instead. The assembly consists of 193 member nations and the Palestinians have greater support there.
What’s the difference between the Security Council and the General Assembly?
The Security Council constitutes the executive branch of the UN. The decisions it makes and resolutions it passes are binding, yet the council is ruled by world powers – the U.S., Russia, China and Britain – each possessing the power to veto any council decision. Last year, the U.S. said that if the Palestinians received the nine votes necessary for Palestine to be recognized, it would use its veto power to block the measure.
The General Assembly is more like the UN's parliament. Its decisions and resolutions are only the level of statements of intent with less binding and practical force. In the General Assembly, member nations' votes count equally and no one has veto power.
What does the draft resolution say?
It says that the General Assembly will recognize Palestine within the 1967 borders as a non-member observer state at the UN. The resolution also calls for the immediate renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with the goal of reaching a two-state solution.
What is an observer state?
The resolution likely to pass tonight at the General Assembly will in effect upgrade the Palestinians' status at the UN. The Palestinians were originally represented there by the PLO, which was granted observer status like the Arab League. Afterward, the Palestinian representation at the UN changed so that a Palestinian delegation, not the PLO, represented Palestine. The Palestinians observer status remained unchanged, but it was not recognized as a state. Now the Palestinians' status will resemble that of the Vatican. The UN will recognize Palestine as a state, but that state will not be a full member in the organization like most other countries in the world, and its status will be that of observer.
What are the practical implications of this move?
Apart from the symbolic upgrade, the measure will strengthen Palestinian standing in the international community and call greater attention to their claim for an independent state and an end to the occupation. It will also allow them to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague and will gain them membership into about 30 other UN agencies.
Why does Israel oppose the measure?
Jerusalem's main concern is that the General Assembly's decision will enable the Palestinians to challenge Israel, both diplomatically and legally, in the international arena. For example, Israel is concerned that the Palestinians will pursue legal action at The Hague against Israeli officials involved in settlement construction or against Israeli army officers serving in the West Bank. In addition, the Palestinian bid is likely to increase pressure on Israel to end settlement construction and to encourage boycotts of Israeli goods sold on the international market.
What can we expect the day after the vote?
At first, nothing. Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. administration will have to wait until after the Israeli election in January to see how things play out. The Palestinians aren't expected to pursue additional initiatives at the UN or at the ICC in the coming months. Israel's response to the vote will be measured and cautious, and it will only ramp up its response if the Palestinians launch additional measures. It's safe to presume that after the Israeli election, the U.S. will make a new push for peace talks in an effort to break the diplomatic deadlock and prevent a further deterioration in relations.