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George Baumgarten

Inside the UN 's Palestine Vote- Short of Full Membership, and Much Closer Than It Seems

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, Dec 2, 2012

Inside the U.N.’s Palestine Vote:
      Short of Full Membership, and Much Closer Than It Seems

When the United Nations General Assembly voted—by a seemingly overwhelming margin—to upgrade the status of Palestine to what is called an “observer state”, it handed them what they are touting as a great victory, and an episode of great progress. This will put them on a theoretically equal footing with the Holy See, as the Observer Mission of the Vatican is known at the U.N. In fact, these two observers sit side-by-side on the side of the General Assembly Hall, apart from the alphabetically-listed member states, and this is not likely to change. But the vote was closer than it may seem. And the “progress” may be—at best—illusory.

The story actually begins a year ago, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with somewhat grander initial ambitions, attempted to gain full membership for his “state” in the U.N.’s General Assembly. Abbas had refused to negotiate further with Israel, while the Israelis engaged in any “settlement activity” (This position, of course, ignored the fact that Israel had voluntarily instituted a “settlement freeze” for ten months in 2009-’10.). In any event, that first attempt failed, because of its need to be approved by the Security Council.
     The procedure to apply for U.N. membership is actually perfectly clear in Article 4.2 of the U.N. Charter, which specifies that
     “The admission of any state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a
      decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”

The Security Council must pass such a “recommendation” by a vote of at least nine of its members (provided, of course, that none of the five permanent members vetoes the resolution). In the case of Palestine, it was known that the U.S. would surely veto the resolution, if necessary. However, if there were not nine affirmative votes, the U.S. was thought likely to abstain. At that time, in late 2011, it all came down to the vote of Bosnia & Herzegovina, which then held the Eastern European seat on the Council. Its leaders could not agree on one position, so the Bosnians would have had to abstain. Knowing this, it was never brought to a vote in the Council, so Abbas decided to go a year later to the General Assembly. Deciding not to act until after the U.S. election, the Palestinians decided to have the vote on 29 November, the 65th anniversary of the famous Partition Resolution of 1947 (General Assembly Resolution 181[II]).

 The Palestinian “Observer”, Ambassador Riyad Mansour, held a press conference on Tuesday, 27 November, two days before the vote in the General Assembly. At that press conference, he assured us that after the vote passed, their priorities would be on negotiations (“First Priority, Second Priority, Third Priority”).

As the vote approached, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that France would support the resolution. Fabius justified the French action in the name of “consistency”, citing actions as far back as that of the previous French Socialist President, Francois Mitterand, in 1982. Fabius did warn, however, that “…only through the unconditional and immediate negotiation we’re calling for between the two sides will it be possible to achieve a Palestinian state in reality”.

Great Britain, on the other hand, decided to abstain, as Foreign Secretary William Hague informed the House of Commons on Wednesday the 28th.He also cited the need for “…a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state” , reminding the Commons that “This is the only way to secure a sustainable end to the conflict”. And German Ambassador Peter Wittig came to us at the press “stakeout” outside the General Assembly Hall just before the vote, and assured us that Germany, too, had decided to abstain. Among the Low Countries, Belgium and Luxembourg voted Yes, while the Netherlands abstained. In general , Western European countries generally voted Yes, while their Eastern European colleagues abstained.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was the first of the “principals” to speak, followed by Israel’s Ambassador, Ron Prosor. In his speech, Abbas spoke (as his various representatives always do) of the unfulfilled promise of the 1947 U.N. “Partition” resolution. That was why he was coming back to the United Nations. Then he described what he called “…the incessant flood of Israeli threats in response to our peaceful , political and diplomatic endeavor…”. All Israel’s fault, all one-sided. As though all the rockets from Gaza to Sderot and elsewhere in the Negev… had never flown or even been launched.
      Abbas continued further in the same vein:
     “We have not heard one word from any Israeli official expressing any sincere concern to save the peace process”, and
     “The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: Enough of aggression, settlements and occupation”.

Abbas”s “opposite number” from Israel was its Ambassador, Ron Prosor. A long-experienced career diplomat whose previous post was as Ambassador to Great Britain, Prosor has made it an emphatic policy of his Ambassadorship to respond to every provocation or insult from Israel’s adversaries. He opened his address by noting that he stood “…tall and proud because I represent the world’s one and only Jewish state”. He quoted the biblical instruction “seek peace and pursue it” (Bakesh shalom ur’dafehu), and added that “Peace fills our art and poetry. It is taught in our schools”.

     But citing the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of peace efforts, Prosor said
    “In fact, President Abbas…I have never heard you say the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’.
    Because the Palestinian leadership has never recognized that Israel is the nation-state of  the Jewish people”.

 And further pointing up the futility of the Resolution, he said that it violated a commitment that “all outstanding issues in the peace process would only be resolved in direct negotiations”.

 At this point, the General Assembly suspended all speeches to vote on the issue. The Resolution passed, by a vote of: 138 in favor, with only 9 against (Canada, Czech Republic, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Panama, United States), with 41 abstentions. Five countries (Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Liberia, Madagascar, Ukraine) cast  no vote at all. But the vote was much closer that it might seem.

There followed several “Explanation of Vote” comments (as distinguished from formal speeches, which followed thereafter), by various members. Commenting on the Resolution, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice noted that “…we have long been clear that the only way to establish such a Palestinian state and resolve all permanent-status issue is through the crucial, if painful, work of direct negotiations between the parties”. And she continued: “Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade. And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded”.

French Ambassador Gerard Araud echoed the previous comments of his Foreign Minister, citing precedents back to President Mitterand’s actions in 1982. And in a statement after the vote, his new President Francois Hollande cited French support for a two-state solution since 1947, warning however that “Direct dialogue is indeed the only way to find a lasting solution to this conflict”.

Mohammad, Khazaee, Ambassador of Iran, spoke not as a representative of his own country (though certainly expressing his own sincere and heartfelt sentiments), but on behalf of the “Non-Aligned Movement”. He called for  “…accountability for the perpetration by the occupying power of war crimes in its latest military aggression against Gaza in order to end Israel impunity and to realize justice for the victims”. Once again, there is a delusion of “criminal” responsibility. Did the 1,300+ rockets fired from the Gaza Strip never take flight? Were they some Israeli divine ballistic illusion? One truly has to wonder what—or whether—this Ambassador is thinking.

Guatemala is currently serving its first term as a member of the Security Council, despite being a Charter Member of the United Nations (i.e., since 1945). Its Ambassador, Gert Rosenthal, who is the only known non-Israeli Jewish Permanent Representative, was Immediate Past President of the Security Council, at the time of the Palestine vote. He patiently (but most briefly) explained that Guatemala was not ready to vote the upgrade of a state it had not yet recognized. And he also asserted that the final status of Palestine “…must be the outcome of a direct negotiation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel”. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems not to interact with the Press, at least not outside of Ramallah. Entering and leaving the General Assembly Hall, he greeted us with the swiftest and most perfunctory of waves. But his Foreign Minister, Riad al-Malki, did stop by to speak with us. I asked al-Malki about his Ambassador’s assurance of two days before (Negotiation would be their “first, second and third priority”.). He started to describe an effort at negotiations, but then qualified it with the caveat that “If the Israelis start to build more settlements…”.

The 138 votes for the status upgrade resolution may seem overwhelming. But consider the true arithmetic: There are 193 member states eligible to vote. Since five members (See above.) did not vote at all, that left 188 total votes (138 + 9 + 41). The resolution had to receive the votes of two-thirds of the members present and voting. Therefore, it needed 126 votes. In short, a mere thirteen vote changes could have thrown the result entirely the other way. Not quite as “overwhelming” as it may seem.

In conclusion, there would seem to be a great capacity here for creative self-delusion: Is this really a “victory” for Palestine? And how, exactly, is it a true victory for the Palestinian people? A year ago, it was said that President Abbas wanted this “victory” as his legacy, and then really wanted to retire (He is now 77 years old.). Now, a year later, one truly wonders: What is he really thinking? After all, this is a man whose thesis (for the “Candidate of Science” degree at the former Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow) was on the subject The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism. One wonders what he really has in mind. One wanders…what he—or his people—think will really happen next.

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