UN General Assembly votes to give Palestine enhanced status

As expected, the United Nations General Assembly voted on Thursday to give Palestine “nonmember observer state” status. This upgrades Palestine’s status from mere “observer” and, without making it a full voting member of the UN, explicitly recognizes it as a state.

The vote was taken in spite of objections by Israel and pressure from the United States. Voting in favor of the move were 138 countries, including most U.S. allies and trading partners. Only 9 countries voted against the measure: Israel, the United States, Canada, Panama, the Czech Republic and four tiny Pacific island states whose foreign and defense policies are substantially controlled by the United States: The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. These four states are also the ones who regularly either abstain or vote “no” on the annual vote in the General Assembly to condemn the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba.

Forty-one states abstained from the vote, and a few others did not vote. Abstainers included right-wing governments closely allied with the United States such as Colombia, Guatemala and Paraguay, plus a number of Eastern European states. Also abstaining were the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began the campaign to get “observer state” status in the General Assembly after his efforts to get the Security Council to recognize Palestine as a full member state were blocked by U.S. opposition last year.

The move is intended to give the Palestinians more leverage for their stalled negotiations with Israel over a two-state solution to the long running Israel-Palestine conflict. It comes on the 65th anniversary of the 1947 vote in the United Nations to recognize two states – Israel and a Palestinian state – in the former World War I mandated territory of Palestine. In 1967, Israel fought a war with Arab neighbors in which it seized the West Bank of the Jordan River and also Gaza, thereby bringing those Palestinians who had not fled into exile under Israeli rule. Since the Oslo accords of 1993, the basic Palestinian position, articulated by the PLO and the PA but rejected by Hamas, has been for a two-state solution, with the borders between Israel and the Palestinian state being those preceding the 1967 war, with Arab-majority East Jerusalem as the capital and with the recognition of a right to return (or compensation) for Palestinians exiles. However, negotiations are currently bogged down over the Israeli practice of building and expanding Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank, which encroach on territory needed for a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians also denounced actions by Israeli security forces as despotic.

The new status gives Palestine the right to participate in United Nations debates and to apply for membership in several U.N.-linked agencies. One of these is the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States and Israel fear that the Palestinians may try to haul Israel into the ICC for violations of international law with regard to matters like the settlements.

Earlier, the Obama administration had tried to pressure the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to stop the settlement expansion and to recognize the 1967 borders as the basis for further negotiations, but this was rebuffed. Going into yesterday’s vote, the Obama administration had, instead, pressured the Palestinians to back down and to negotiate “without preconditions.”

However, Abbas is also under pressure by Hamas to take a harder line with Israel. In the recent fighting in Gaza, Hamas came out a clear winner, while Abbas and the PLO were relegated to the sidelines and made to appear as passive accepters of Israeli domination. Israel ended up negotiating (through Egyptian mediation) with Hamas without reference to the PA, and even making concessions. Hamas is also buoyed by the rise of Islamic governments in the Arab world, and especially by a recent visit to Gaza by the Emir of oil-rich Qatar. So Abbas was in no position to yield to U.S. pressure.

The negative reaction to the U.N. vote came quickly. Israel announced that it is going to build even more housing for Jewish settlers in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Obama administration quickly denounced this. Several U.S. politicians threatened cutting off aid to the PA and to any UN agency, which accepts Palestinian participation, as well as closing the PLO’s office in Washington.

In the U.S., J Street, a mostly Jewish organization that supports a two-state solution, urged the Obama administration to accept the results and to move forward quickly to promoting new negotiations. In a statement it said “we strongly oppose retaliatory measures against the PLO or the Palestinian Authority-in particular, congressional efforts to cut funding, which could lead to the collapse of the PA and jeopardize the important progress made in recent years.”

The J Street statement added “We reject the notion that approaching the UN for enhanced status is an attempt to delegitimize Israel…By specifically referencing relevant UN precedents and other international statements, this resolution actually affirms Israel’s right to exist.” 

In his speech Nov. 29, Abbas stated that his purpose was not to delegitimize Israel but rather to give legitimacy to Palestine.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.