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Palestine at the UN: What Will Fail, What May Pass and What It Means

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UNITED NATIONS - Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, announced he would apply for full voting membership of the United Nations on Friday. But that needs UN Security Council approval and will fail. What may eventually succeed is upgrading its status from "observer" to a "non-voting observer state," in the General Assembly, a category that now includes the Vatican only.

There probably will be no vote in September, despite the hullabaloo from supporters of Israel and the Palestinians. Security Council members are adept at delaying a vote for weeks, if not months. The United States, as one of five permanent Council members, has pledged to veto the application.

Abbas told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "of his intention to submit" on Friday "an application for membership in the United Nations," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky announced. (The secretary-general then passes the request to the Security Council.)

With the application to the Security Council for full membership, the Palestinian bid to the General Assembly will also be delayed. The near-certainty that there will be a lot of announcements but no vote on any Palestinian resolution this month leaves time for Israel, the United States and Europeans to work out a deal, as dismal as that looks at the moment.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said the status quo was neither "acceptable nor tenable" and warned of violence if the peace process were not re-launched. He told the Council on Foreign Relations he was meeting Abbas shortly and would ask him about his strategy. "Going to the Council of Security and what after that," he asked. Juppé said he thought mediators had three or four days to find a solution.

So what does it mean?
Let's drop the myth that Palestine will have worldwide recognition. Recognizing a state is done by individual nations on a bilateral basis and over 100 nations have recognized Palestine, even if Gaza is controlled by Hamas. But it does mean that Abbas, who is believed to be shopping for a legacy, has more than enough votes in the 193-member General Assembly for an observer state..

The Holy See as an observer state cannot vote in the General Assembly or any of its other organs but it can advocate positions in all these foras as well as UN international conferences. So can the Palestinian Authority in its present observer status.

The biggest difference is that the new status as an observer state uses the word "state," an increase in prestige, and allows Palestine to sign treaties, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). And that is a worry for Israel although this too takes many months and many procedures.

Still, Ambassador Christian Wenaweser of Liechtenstein, president of the ICC Assembly of State Parties, told this reporter:

"If Palestine is recognized as an observer state and thus implicitly as a State, they can to my mind, ratify the Rome Statute - as any other treaty - and become a regular State Party. The ratification of course has to be accepted by the UN legal office, but there should be no question there once the GA would have granted observer status."

Sucking out the air
The annual U.N. parade of world leaders for a two week period at the General Assembly, including President Obama as well as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the main event in September.

But the United Nations (not to mention the Council on Foreign Relations and the Clinton Initiative) has a plethora of side events: preventive diplomacy, nuclear safety, control of non-communicable diseases , counter-terrorism, sustainable energy, women 's rights, Libya's future and Somalia, to name a few. However, press coverage will be limited as the turns and twists of Palestinian actions will "suck the air out of everything else," according to one diplomat.

Israel, while officially accepting the idea of a Palestinian state, has lifted its moratorium on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and insists on keeping control of Jerusalem. It also fears militant groups and missiles would get through unless Israel controls its borders, an approach rejected by the Palestinians.

"I believe that in the end, after the smoke clears, after everything that happens in the U.N., ultimately the Palestinians will come to their senses -- that's my hope -- and will abandon these negotiations-circumventing maneuvers and will sit down at the table," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet recently.

One goal of the Palestinian move appears to be gaining admission to international legal forums, like the ICC and the International Court of Justice, where complaints against Israeli occupation and settlements could be filed. Abbas said he seeking to advance negotiations between two.

For most world leaders, Israel's Netanyahu is considered particularly intransigent compared to his predecessors. An exception of course is Washington, particularly the U.S. Congress where Netanyahu has been wooing Republicans and appears to be betting on a defeat for President Obama in 2012.

Perfect storm mounting for Israel
The Arab spring has let loose forces that could be very detrimental to Israel -- its embassy was attacked in Egypt and relations with moderate Turkey are near the breaking point. And so the Palestinian controversy has taken on new significance.

Palestinian leaders are frustrated after years of unsuccessful peace talks that were derailed by violence, their own indecision and sharp differences on key issues. Israel also insists Abbas recognize it as a Jewish state, which would preclude a mass return of refugees. (In reality, thousands of Palestinians will not return to Israel and this issue will be pushed into the future but Palestinians cannot say that publicly.)

The situation is particularly painful for the Obama administration which has supported revolts in Libya and in Syria (but ignored those in Bahrain.) A veto in the Security Council would not help its image in the Arab world.

Moreover, Republican lawmakers have vowed to end American aid to the Palestinian Authority (and many other UN activities it doesn't like) if it seeks United Nations membership, something the administration opposes. That could create further chaos on the ground and undercut Prime Minister. Salam Fayyad considered an accomplished leader.

Said former President Bill Clinton on This Week:

"The American government has agreed with Israel that there's no way the U.N. can impose a peace plan and, therefore, the peace plan has to be the subject of negotiations. So I think that this is not a good thing to have the Congress tie the hands the administration one way or the other. I think that we ought to try to use this conflict to try to head off conflict and get back to cooperation."