On November 29, ‘Palestine’ was recognized as a State by the U.N. General Assembly, albeit as an observer rather than a full member. A total of 138 countries voted in favor, with nine voting against and 41 abstaining.
Exasperated by the failure of two decades of sporadic and mainly U.S.-mediated peace negotiations, and the continued unwillingness of the Israeli government to stop settlement-building in the West Bank, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has sought an upgraded diplomatic status to increase pressure on Israel to reach an agreement.
Abbas’ efforts to secure full U.N. membership are stalled, reflecting his inability both to secure the required super-majority on the Security Council and owing to the certainty of a U.S. veto. He, therefore, has pursued the lesser status of an observer state – a designation typically afforded to institutions such as the Vatican, among others. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was granted an observer role in 1974, but is not recognized as a state.
In spite of intensive lobbying by Israel and the U.S., the vote went ahead, symbolically exactly 65 years after another U.N. vote for a plan to partition the mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The recognition vote, which required a simple majority, attracted support from 138 countries, or 71 percent of the U.N. (more than had been initially expected). Significantly major European nations – including France, Italy and Spain – voted in favor. The only “no” votes came from Israel, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, the U.S., and four tiny Pacific island nations allied to it. Additionally, a handful of significant nations abstained, notably the U.K., Germany, and South Korea.
“The vote… will help to raise international awareness of the Palestinians’ situation, but will have minimal impact on efforts to restart the long-standing peace process.” – Pratibha Thaker, Economist Intelligence Unit
Although the vote may well provide a measure of legitimization and moral support for Palestinians (helping to explain the subsequent celebrations on the streets of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip), the impact on the ground will take time to develop, and a full Israeli response may not be clear until after the country’s elections on January 22.
Israel, which said the vote would “hurt peace” (a stance backed by the U.S.), has threatened retaliation, including freezing transfers of customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Even if this threat is followed through, it would almost certainly be a temporary move as Israel will not want to undermine Abbas and thereby empower his rivals, the Islamist group, Hamas. Indeed, it transferred $52 million in duties just two days before the vote. Instead, it appears that Israel decided to take a different tack, with an announcement a day after the vote that it had authorized the building of 3,000 more housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Palestine will now seek to join U.N. agencies and related bodies, including potentially the International Criminal Court. Israel is concerned that its military could be tried in the court for alleged war crimes, and pressure was put on Abbas to make a commitment not to bring any cases before it, which he refused. Nonetheless, Abbas is unlikely to seek a confrontation at the court, at least not soon, which could anyway reject cases on technical grounds.
The vote, and its outcome, will help to raise international awareness of the Palestinians’ situation, but will have minimal impact on efforts to restart the long-standing peace process.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by Economist Intelligence Unit
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Pratibha Thaker is regional director, Middle East & Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).