11/30/2012 09:28 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Palestinian Vote at UN: Game Change Or Same Old, Same Old?

UNITED NATIONS -- Palestine had no problem getting an upgraded status at the United Nations, isolating Israel and the United States and giving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the boost in stature he so badly needed.

Baffling is why the United States and Israel fought the move, instead of joining the majority and thereby having some influence over a the resolution that upgrades the status of Palestine to a "nonmember observer state." It was going to pass anyway. The vote in the General Assembly was 138 in favor, 9 against and 41 abstentions.

Said Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defense minister:

Abbas's statehood bid can be a game-changer if the American and Israeli governments respond prudently. Or it can be another missed opportunity -- and a potentially disastrous one at that -- if they respond punitively to a remarkable Palestinian achievement at the U.N. General Assembly.

Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, immediately criticized the vote, saying it was "counterproductive" and "places further obstacles in the path of peace."

OK, so what happened? Frustrated by years of occupation, the Palestinian Authority successfully moved from being an observer entity to an observer state. The word state is symbolic and important to the Palestinians in any future negotiations with Israel. However, the action falls short of full membership in the 193-nation world body, a move the Palestinians attempted unsuccessfully a year ago.

In the last four years, the peace process between Israel and Palestine went nowhere. The Palestinians said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unlike other Israeli premiers, refused to engage in meaningful talks about establishing borders for a future Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with exchanges of territory.

Gaza war diminishes Abbas

The recent war in the Gaza Strip put the militant Hamas, which controls the territory, in the driver's seat in negotiating a cease-fire and ignoring Abbas, considered a moderate. The U.N. vote in many ways enhanced his prestige.

According to Ha'aretz, "Israel claims that Abbas demanded preconditions that are unlike any previous terms for talks in the past," including a moratorium on settlements in the West Bank, which Netanyahu has refused. Netanyahu noted that when Israel did freeze settlements for 10 months, the Palestinians did not engage in direct negotiations. (see Q and A in Ha'aretz.)

In short, not talking seems to be easier than talking. And there probably won't be talks unless the Obama administration becomes a facilitator, along with Egypt and/or other nations. Not talking can apply to Washington also, which has not even appointed a special envoy for the crisis.

Britain noted the deadlock. Its U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, told reporters it was time for President Barack Obama "to use the next 12 months as a way to really break through this impasse" in order to rescue the two-state solution.

Until the vote, Israeli government comments were muted, despite the outcry among many of its supporters. Then Netanyahu, in a statement, called Abbas' U.N. speech "defamatory and venomous." And Abbas did use some fierce words such as "racist colonial occupation," among others.

Birth certificate(s)

The Palestinian Authority chose November 29 as the date for their resolution because exactly 65 years ago, in 1947, the General Assembly partitioned Palestine, then under the British Mandate, into two states -- one Jewish, one Arab. The Jews accepted the division, the Arabs did not. But the Palestine Liberation Organization since then has endorsed two states.

"Sixty-five years ago on this day, the United States General Assembly adopted resolution 181 (II), which partitioned the land of historic Palestine into two states and became the birth certificate for Israel," Abbas said in his speech, greeted by sustained applause.

"The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine. This is why we are here today," he said.

Then history takes a divisive path. Abbas several times mentioned "the ashes of Al-Nabka of 1948." This refers to the events leading to the establishment of Israel. The Israelis call it the War of Independence when Arabs attacked and Palestinians call it the "Nakbah" -- or catastrophe -- when they fled or were driven from their homes.

Israel or "Jewish" state?

In response, Ambassador Ron Prosor of Israel said that "For as long as President Abbas prefers symbolism over reality, as long as he prefers to travel to New York for U.N. resolutions, rather than travel to Jerusalem for genuine dialogue, any hope of peace will be out of reach."

"Today the Palestinians are turning their back on peace," he said. "Don't let history record that today the U.N. helped them along on their march of folly."

Prosor said that for peace to endure, Israel's security must be protected. And he said the Palestinians must "recognize the Jewish State and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all." Palestinians recognize Israel, but not as a Jewish state as called for in the 1947 U.N. resolution, apprehensive of the status of 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel.

Three foreign ministers attended: from Indonesia, Turkey and Canada (which voted "no") but none from any Arab nation.

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, in an impassioned speech, said: "So let me ask it bluntly: 'If not now, when? When will it be the right time for the Palestinians to achieve their right to statehood?' (The phrase, "if not now when?" originated with the Hebrew scholar Hillel)

International Criminal Court

The upgrade in status allows the Palestinians to join various U.N. bodies as well as the International Criminal Court in The Hague. And that probably worries Israel more than any other action in the General Assembly -- an investigation by the ICC that could prohibit its top officials or generals from traveling.

In actuality, the ICC moves very slowly and carefully and could investigate the entire conflict, including actions by Hamas against Israel. Earlier this week, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. envoy, told a news conference his government did not intend to join the ICC right away. But he said Israeli settlements were a "war crime" and hinted that raising that issue was a possibility.

"I don't believe that we are going to be rushing the second day to join everything related to the United Nations, including the ICC," he said. "But, at the same time, it is not fair for us to tie our own hands [with] all the possibilities that could be available to us."


The U.S. Congress is under an obligation to cut funds to any U.N. agency that accepts the Palestinian Authority as well as slash payments to the PA itself. Congress stopped financing to UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, last year when it accepted Palestine as a member.

European nations are also a major donor to the PA and Palestinian refugee relief projects. Therefore, the PA was hoping for strong European endorsement, which it failed to get when it applied to the Security Council last year for full membership.

Some 14 of the 27 European Union members supported the resolution. Others abstained or voted "no." (see below)

So will there ever be real substantial talks? Some say neither side has suffered enough to make the sacrifices needed for an acceptable deal.

(The nine negative votes came from the United States, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.)

(The 41 abstentions included: Albania, Andorra, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados ,Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Croatia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Estonia, Fiji, Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Korea (south), Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia ,Malawi, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Poland, Romania, Rwanda, Samoa, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Togo, Tonga, United Kingdom, Vanuatu .)