Showdown at the United Nations: Palestinian Recognition Marks Triumph over Israel

By in New York

Both Israel and the US were adamantly opposed, but the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday granted the Palestinians non-member observer status, essentially an official recognition of a Palestinian state. The European Union was unable to find a common line, and Germany abstained as expected.

Photo Gallery: A Victory for the Palestinians Photos
REUTERS

Helen Freedman and Ari Briggs were completely alone on Thursday afternoon in New York. They were standing in the middle of a small traffic island in front of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan and waving the Israeli flag. They had scrawled "No 'Palestinian' State" on a sign. The quotation marks around the word "Palestinian" were intentional.

The mini-protest was the pair's way of venting their anger at what was happening in the building across the street. The UN General Assembly had just begun proceedings to grant the Palestinians the status of a "non-member observer state," a deeply symbolic triumph over their arch-rival Israel. But it is one that is likely to set back the peace process in the Middle East rather than drive it forward.

"The Palestinians want to destroy Israel," complained Freedman, whose organization Americans for a Safe Israel supports the settler movement in the West Bank. Before he could say more, Freedman was interrupted by screaming sirens as a motorcade rushed up First Avenue. In a moment of irony, the armored car in the middle contained Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, a half hour behind schedule, rushed into the General Assembly to receive "a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine," as he put it in his forceful speech. It was ultimately handed to him at 5 p.m. local time with 138 of the 193 UN member states voting in favor. Nine countries voted no, the US and Israel most prominent among them, and 41 countries abstained,including Germany.

Although the result of the vote was a foregone conclusion, an extended ovation erupted in the plenary. The Palestinian delegation sprang out of their seats, embraced one another and unfurled their flag. Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor, who just minutes earlier had criticized the resolution as a "march of folly," remained seated in stony silence.

'Hostile and Poisonous'

There is little doubt that Palestine's elevation to state status, at least according to the criteria laid out in the UN charter, is a diplomatic success for Abbas, particularly in his ongoing struggle for power with Hamas. But when it comes to the peace process, the vote could emerge as a Pyrrhic victory. After all, the two countries that are of particular importance for peace in the Middle East -- the US and Israel -- feel snubbed by the move.

Shortly after the vote, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "unfortunate" and "counterproductive," adding that the only way to achieve real peace was by way of direct talks. The UN vote, she said, placed new obstacles on that path. As if to prove her point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement criticizing Abbas' General Assembly speech as "hostile and poisonous."

Indeed, both sides seemed intent on using the day to further entrench their positions rather than to extend a hand. Abbas began his speech with an ode to the "beloved martyrs" who lost their lives in the most recent eight-day conflict in the Gaza Strip, speaking of the "men, women and children, murdered along with their dreams." It set the tone for what would become repeated damnations of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, with Abbas calling it racism, apartheid, colonialism and ethnic cleansing.

Israeli Ambassador Prosor, who spoke immediately after Abbas, was no less confrontational. While he said that Israel remained committed to peace, he blasted the Palestinian president, saying that he preferred travelling to New York for symbolism rather than to Jerusalem for genuine dialogue. The resolution, he said, does nothing to promote peace. "There is only one route to Palestinian statehood," he thundered, "and that route does not run through this chamber in New York."

Confusion in the EU

Indeed, outside of the UN plenary, the vote doesn't mean much. Non-member observer states such as the Vatican have a right to speak, but not to vote. The status is seen as a springboard to eventual full membership, but with the US holding a permanent veto in the UN Security Council, such a step is not in the Palestinians' immediate future. The only thing that Israel now has to fear is that the recognition gives the Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court, where they could choose to bring action against the Israelis.

For the European Union, however, the vote once again exposed the 27-member bloc's inability to reach consensus on foreign policy issues. Most EU countries, to be sure, voted in favor of Palestinian observer status, including France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark. Non-EU states Switzerland and Norway also supported Abbas. But others, including Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, abstained in an effort at neutrality. Only one EU member state, the Czech Republic, voted against the Palestinians.

"We have doubts that today's resolution brings the peace process forward," said German UN Ambassador Peter Wittig, echoing the statement released earlier in the day from the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. He said he feared it would do more harm than good.

Others were not as concerned, though. In the morning, the UN honored the Palestinians on what was a historical day even absent the resolution. The vote, not accidentally, had been scheduled for the 65th anniversary of the day the UN Partition Plan for Palestine was passed in 1947.

The fiery General Assembly speeches weren't the only indications of just how little has changed since then. An exhibition of a Palestinian artist was opened in the UN lobby on Thursday evening. And the titles of his abstract works mirrored the ongoing tragedy of two peoples in the Middle East: "Homeland," "Homeless," and "Jerusalem."

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1. great news for one Palestine
nevermind 12/01/2012
will we see war criminals brought to justice, on both sides if need be. Looking forward to the prosecutions of those who incarcerate children, hold up pregnant women at roadblocks and who deliberately shoot children, aiming at the core of the family and community, the civilian society. Also looking forward to resolve the issues of occupied Syrian and Lebanese territories, not to speak of the Apartheid shown towards Arab Israeli’s and the restrictions on housing they are subjected to. Israels internal problems will bear down on hard liners, the growing rift between Likud Kadima and those who are fed up with wars, talk of war or the lack of any relationship with its neighbours, will ensure that Israel eats itself from within, the eternal hate it instils in its people will destroy the future for its children. I’m with Avi Shlaim on this issue, there is only one Palestine for all of its people, and in the absence of any initiatives, the international community, the UN, who granted the rights of statehood to those who fled the Holocaust, will now have to be strong and ensure that these two people who have lived together for hundreds/thousands of years, have to be made to live together, or wither away, annihilating each other with hate. And to the tune of Quantanamera, we sing ‘One Palestinia, there’s only one Palestinia…’
2. All of a kind
Inglenda2 12/01/2012
The no vote of Israel, Canada, The US and The Czech Republic, is not surprising. All of those countries were founded on land taken from native populations belonging to other ethnic groups. To condemn the actions of Israel in Palestine would be to deny their own right of existence.
3. A reality check on Anglo-Jewish rhetoric
titus_norberto 12/04/2012
There is much more meat than the one carved in this article. In the first place the voting showed how isolated are USA and Israel with the rest of the world in direct contrast to the western mass media distorted reflection of reality in which USA and Israel are viewed as paladins and democratic examples for the region and the world. In the second place, a quick review to the list of countries voting NO is extremely illustrative as well as embarrassing to both USA and Israel. Besides, Israel should have not been allowed to vote since becomes judge and party, nevertheless it’s NO vote is not a good start for a "negotiation". But the most notorious flaw in the “vote NO” argument is the cynical and shameless manipulation of the following votes: Palau, Independent in 1994, with 21,000 inhabitants and a full-fledged membership in the UN. Federated States of Micronesia, with negligible population. Marshall Islands, used by USA as a nuclear test polygon, today severely contaminated to the point that only imported bottled water can only be used for human consumption. Nauru, with less than 10,000 in population. Panama, population 3.5 million and ex province of Colombia invaded by USA in 1989 (Operation “Just Cause” was the sarcastic code name used) place-holding a key strategic position on behalf of the US south of Mexico. These full-fledged UN members garnished the stellar presence of USA, Canada and the Czech Republic… All this crafty stunt made with mini-minnows just in order to DEMOLISH the last spec of USA's CREDIBILITY as a responsible world power. If there were some rationality in USA's governance (perhaps the Secretary of State)regarding this show, USA should have gone alone, a collection of tiny Pacific Islands add very little weight to the American vote, even more, it was utterly counterproductive to the point of been comical... Especially considering that USA claims (and wrestled from the former USSR)the position of single-handed “mediator”, “arbiter” and “peace maker” in the Palestinian – Israeli conflict for posterity (the trait of a proud Protestant nation). But now, if there is some sort of sense of shame left in USA’s politicians they cannot claim that prerogative any longer…, imagine a politician losing an election 138 – 9 out of 200 and expecting to state put as if nothing has happened… RIDICULOUS ! In response the world spoke loud and clear: 139 ! Palestine by contrast, is a nation recorded in history under the name of the first colonizers, the Peleset, settling in the region as far as 1200 BC at the start of the Iron Age but... with no seat in the UN... If this is not transvestism, what is transvestism ? There is nothing less common than the common sense, indeed… Norberto
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