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Palestinian UN vote: What is it? Why now?


Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images

Palestinians take part in an anti-US demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday. Dozens of Palestinians chanted slogans against the pressure by the US government on the Palestinian Authority to convince them to step down from the UN bid for membership state.

By Yara Borgal, NBC News

RAMALLAH, West Bank – The dusty miles of hillsides and olive groves, Arab villages, Jewish settlements and Israeli military checkpoints that make up the West Bank of the River Jordan are a world removed from the Vatican City. But one of the oddities of the Palestinians' latest efforts to build their own state is that the two might well end up on an equal diplomatic footing.

One likely outcome of the Palestinian plan to take their case to the United Nations next week would see them elevated to the status of  “non-member observer’’ – the same status held by the pope’s city state.

If they are lucky, it might be the best thing the Palestinians can achieve. 

Seeking a different status
Currently the Palestine Liberation Organization holds only “observer entity status” in the U.N.  If that status were to change to a full member, Palestinians would gain full voting rights at the U.N.

However, in order for the General Assembly to admit Palestine as a full member state, U.N. Security Council approval is needed. The U.S., which opposes the Palestinian request, has veto power and the State Department has made it clear the U.S. will use it.

“Washington has unfortunately declared that it’s going to veto our request,” said Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official and an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We will try again. Israel was vetoed twice, Jordan was rejected more than once, Portugal was rejected five times, Japan was rejected six times and so on.  History has taught us that this issue is not a one shot; it’s a process.”

Option B
Another option for the Palestinian Authority is to by-pass the Security Council and the U.S. veto and take its statehood request directly to the General Assembly, where approval requires a two-thirds majority vote –129 out of 193 member countries.

According to Palestinian officials, 122 countries have already recognized Palestine, but they hope to gain the support of up to 150.

If the General Assembly approves the request, it would grant only limited U.N. recognition as a non-member observer state – so Palestinians would not have the right to vote.

However, it would allow the Palestinians to join dozens of U.N. bodies and conventions, including the International Criminal Court. That would give Palestinians the opportunity to file charges against Israel for alleged violations of international law – such as the continued settlement building.

‘A different mechanism’
The Palestinians have long aspired to establish an independent, sovereign state within the 1967 borders.

However, frustration from decades of on-and-off peace talks that have failed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has led the Palestinians, represented by the Palestinian Authority, to pursue new strategies.

Shtayyeh pointed out that it has been 18 years since the Oslo Accords, which were supposed to set the stage for a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “Unfortunately, almost two decades later, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is entrenched and Israel’s occupation has turned into de facto annexation,” he said.

“All that we are looking for is a new mechanism to end the conflict.  We are not going into violence, we are not going into armed struggle, we are not taking any unilateral steps. We are going to a multilateral forum that has 193 countries and we are asking this international community to speak loudly for a two state solution,” said Shtayyeh.

He added that the move isn’t meant as a challenge to America.

“We are saying to Washington and to the international community these peace talks have been ongoing for 20 years and they have not achieved their goal,” said Shtayyeh. “The goal is the same; we just simply need a different approach, a different mechanism.”

The Palestinians also argue that their U.N. plan fits with the deadline set by the Middle East Peace Quartet –  the E.U., U.S., Russia and U.N. – to reach a two-state solution by September 2011.

“Even President Obama was hoping to see Palestine admitted to the United Nations in his speech last September to the General Assembly, so everybody wants this to happen,” said Shtayyeh.

Strong opposition from Israel
Israel has made it clear that if the Palestinian request is passed, it will not change anything on the ground. The checkpoints, separation wall and settlements will still all be there. The creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 borders is something, they say, no Israeli government will accept because it threatens Israel’s security.

However, the Israelis view this step as far from being a meaningless gesture. They worry about the legality of their occupation and the settlements in the West Bank being put to the judgment of the International Criminal Court. In theory, it might lead to Israeli officials being dragged repeatedly before the International Criminal Court at the Hague – something they obviously don’t want.

The Israeli government, like the U.S., believes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state will set back the peace process. Peace, they insist, can only be achieved through talks.

Israel and the U.S. have urged the Palestinians to reconsider going to the U.N., warning of dire consequences.

Some Israeli right wing officials have called for the suspensions of the transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, the cancellation of all previous agreements and the annexation of territory containing settlement blocs in the West Bank to the state of Israel.

The United States has threatened to stop all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if they proceed with plans to ask the U.N. for recognition of an independent state.

Realizing what’s at stake, the Palestinians have stated that they still intend to submit an application for recognition of Palestinian statehood to the Security Council as a first step.