Palestine at the UN: A Movable Feast Behind the Rhetoric

UNITED NATIONS - If a vote for full U.N. membership in the Security Council were held today, the Palestinians would not have the minimum support needed, thereby sparing the United States the onus of a veto. But either way, the action will fail and eventually the Palestinians will have to go to the General Assembly where they will easily be admitted as a non-voting observer state.

In the meantime, the United States and Europeans are working on the slim chance of a deal with Israel and the Palestinians that would allow an upgrade in the status of Palestine in the U.N. General Assembly. But diplomats said Israel would need an assurance that the Palestinians would not go to the International Criminal Court, something they refused to relinquish.

Of course, one could ask why this was not done at the outset rather than the hullaballoo and divisiveness that have emerged in the Middle East and a lot of Obama-bashing in the United States.

Facts and developments
The Palestinians will apply for full U.N. voting membership on Friday, which means an application to the 15-nation Security Council. That date does not mean a vote but the beginning of a procedural process that will delay any action for weeks, if not longer.

For a resolution to be adopted in the Council, nine votes in favor are needed and no veto from the five permanent members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. At this point, the Palestinians do not have the nine votes needed, two Council diplomats told this reporter.

The procedure is for the president of the Council to first ask for those voting "yes." Russia, China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Lebanon are expected to raise their hands while the United States, Britain, France and Germany would stay silent. Council members said to be wavering are Portugal, Bosnia, Nigeria, Gabon and Colombia. The resolution would fail if not enough countries voted in favor. Then those opposed would not have to vote.

Of course, anything could change depending on events on the ground and the world as well as the speeches of Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday. However, the bottom line is there will not be a vote in the Security Council for weeks, and it will fail, no matter what.

So the question is whether the onus would be put on the United States to cast a veto -- and why the Palestinians would want to put Washington on the spot when there is nothing to gain and much to lose. A "no" vote in the General Assembly by the United States would also set Washington against the tide of world opinion.

The second question is why Israel did not agree weeks ago to negotiate an upgrade in the status of Palestine in the 193-member General Assembly, where no one has veto rights and the measure was bound to be adopted.

The biggest difference is that the new status as a non-voting observer state, rather than Palestine's current status as an "observer, " uses the word "state." This is an increase in prestige, and allows the Palestinians to sign treaties, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). And that is a worry for Israel.

"Morally, politically, legally"

Dr. Nabeel Shaath, advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), told a news conference that Palestinians would give the Security Council "some time" to consider the request and then go to the General Assembly. He said Palestinians wanted to make a "serious attempt" at full membership "without closing any doors," noting that Israel itself had waited over a year for full membership.

"Our people need to see action -- morally politically legally," he said. "When you see the world standing with you, it gives you hope" after 20 years of failed U.S.-facilitated negotiations.

One precondition to reopening talks, he said again, was a moratorium on Jewish settlements in the West Bank which Israel had done but then lifted. He said Israeli leaders had been talking to Palestinians regularly but no progress was made. "There is no peace if the land is vanishing piece by piece."

The Quartet for Mideast mediators -- the U.S., the European Union, the U.N. and Russia -- have been meeting with their envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, over the past few days to draft a statement to advance the case of a return to negotiations. Blair is searching for a deal that would include a resumption of talks with agreed-upon parameters.

The major sticking point, informed sources said, is the issue of "Israel as a Jewish state." There are attempts to finesse that by referring to previous resolutions.

Obama and Sarkozy
President Obama, for the first time since he took office, received a lukewarm reception at the General Assembly, mainly because he offered nothing new on the Palestine controversy.

A year after standing on the same podium and announcing that he hoped to see a Palestinian state born by now, Obama said creating such a state alongside Israel remained his goal. However, he said the conflict could only be resolved by negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"But the question isn't the goal we seek -- the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades," he said. "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N. -- if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."

Said Jeffrey Laurenti, fellow at the Century Foundation think-tank:

"Far from offering a blueprint for the future, his address seemed more to look backward to celebrate the transformations of the past year, and over his shoulder to his conservative opponents' bid to play the Israeli card against him."

In contrast, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy used his entire speech to say it was time for a definitive agreement. He asked the Palestinians not to seek a Security Council seat but said he would support observer state status in the General Assembly.

He proposed direct negotiations within a month; a decision on borders and security within six months; and a resolution of all other issues that would create Palestinian state within a year. Amid it all was a conference in Paris, which is an annual suggestion by French governments on a variety of issues.

The sad story is that no one can really agree on the future. Israel has good reason to worry about its security, having been attacked by its Arab neighbors from the moment it was created. And the Palestinians cannot be expected to accept a life under occupation and settlements.