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A New State of Statelessness

A New State of Statelessness

Editor’s Note:
The following is a guest appearance by Gus Constantinou,
a freelance writer at the United Nations (U.N.). 

A full sixty-five years after the United Nations celebrated a United Nations vote to split the Mandate of Palestine into two states, thus creating the state of Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stood before the General Assembly (GA) of the U.N. and called upon its 193 Member States, “to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine.” The General Assembly obliged, by a margin of 138 in favor, 41 abstentions and 9 opposed. Resolution A/67/L.28, Status of Palestine to the United Nations, was duly adopted.

Palestine achieved the simple majority vote needed in the GA to gain “non-member state” status, a step above their current “permanent observer entity” status. However, this also falls short of the request for “full member state” status that Abbas tried to bring before the United Nations Security Council last year. The Security Council is the only U.N. institution that can grant “full member state” status, with unanimous agreement, and the U.S. government made clear they were willing to use their veto on the issue as they felt only negotiations and a final peace settlement could grant “full member state” status. The same disapproval from the U.S. government remained  during the vote this year. But unlike the Security Council, there was overwhelming support for the move among the 193 Member States of the GA.

However, the elevation in status to “non-member state” sees the PLO status on par with that of The Holy See (The Vatican), in that it is not included as a member state and cannot vote. It will not be considered the 194th state and, as Ambassador Mansour explained in his post-adoption speech, there will be no new flagpole for the State of Palestine. The State of Palestine will, however, able to participate in the General Assembly and speak at meetings.

The main achievement of the resolution could be that the Palestinians could bring Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is not a part of the U.N. system but an independent body. Article 125 of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document, declares that “all States” may join the Court. Drafted at a time when Switzerland wasn’t part of the U.N. (they joined in 2002) it encompasses “non-member states” status. However, Israel is not a signatory to the ICC and there are questions over ICC jurisdiction here. Even more pressing will be questions of whether Abbas would actually take the step, having himself deferred taking the 2009 U.N. Human Rights Council “Goldstone Report” to the ICC. Also called into question is whether the Palestinians themselves could be called to the ICC for actions of militants their government cannot control.

Membership to other U.N. agencies and organs as a non-member state will also need to occur on a case-by-case basis where hurdles will also exist. The starkest example of negative ramifications of joining against the wishes of the U.S. or Israel occurred last year when Palestine join the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a full-member in 2011. The U.S. promptly cut its $80 million to the agency, an estimated 20% of its budget.

As for the vote, it is commonly accepted that few countries want to be first showing their cards while voting on a resolution as contentious as this one. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was always surely to vote yes. Sudan introduced the resolution on behalf of the OIC, perhaps  hoping no one would notice Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir himself is wanted on an outstanding ICC warrant.

The U.S. was always “no,” full stop. Shortly after the vote, Ambassador Rice issued a short and stern response condemning the vote as counter productive and that, “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.” In case the point was not made clearly enough, Ambassador Rice went on to state, “Progress toward a just and lasting two-state solution cannot be made by pressing a green voting button here in this hall. Nor does passing any resolution create a state where none indeed exists or change the reality on the ground.”

How President Obama, rumored to have offered himself as mediator if Abbas didn’t take the step to the GA, and his team deal with voting “no” in his new term remains to be seen. Being on the wrong side of ecstatic scenes of a jubilant GA that reflected the strong international support the Palestinian cause will add to the perceived inability of the U.S. to mediate a just outcome on the situation.

Israel entered the scene long before the vote, and strongly opposed to bringing the resolution to the GA. But as the date drew closer, and adoption looked certain, the unofficial policy was to downplay the matter. But then violence appeared yet again in Gaza in late November. Memories of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza did Israel no favors and international opinion turned even further away from the Israelis.

Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, traveled to the U.S. but was instructed to remain in Washington to reduce official representation at the U.N. It was left to Ambassador Prosor to appeal one last time to the Member States. His remarks included the blunt reminder that the vote, “President Abbas, you can’t even visit nearly half the territory of the state you claim to represent.” The Israeli reaction the next day was to increase settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank’s E1 area by 3,000. Palestinian diplomats interpreted the move as inevitable “punishment” for going to the GA. With an end to settlement building a precondition to talks for the P.A., how negotiations can continue remains to be seen.

The current Canadian administration has made no secret of where it was going to vote. With the exception of Israel, only Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird took to the podium to “oppose [the] resolution in the strongest terms” for “its unilateral nature” before the vote. After the vote, Canada found itself voting “no” in a minority of nine that included the U.S., Israel, the Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Palau, Micronesia and Nauru.

Germany and Italy stood out by stating that they would vote against but murmurs were growing that they would join a larger consensus of those standing behind the scenes that they would vote in favor. The recent attacks in Gaza went a long way in changing Germany’s and Italy’s votes from “no” to “abstain.” The lack of a solution to the conflict meant that political brinksmanship would not amount to a common “yes” vote. The U.K. was a firm “no” that sought to change to “yes” on assurances that the Palestinians would not seek to revert to the ICC. When such assurances were not gained, they voted to abstain.

The Czech Republic stayed firm on their “no,” choosing domestic politics over a relatively unified EU position of “yes” and “abstain.” This led to a dreaded three-way split and again calling into question the foreign policy role the EU could play. As if that wasn’t enough, the Ukraine somehow managed not to be present and made no choice at all. Turtle Bay is flush with reasons why, most of them humorous, none serious.

But will the change in status mean anything on the ground? More than anything, the move is seen as a means for embattled PA President Mahmoud Abbas to remain relevant on the Palestinian political scene. Abbas is widely seen as without a popular base, corrupt and derided as Israel’s police officer. His policy of following the non-violent means to statehood promised in the Oslo Accords has borne little fruit and frustration is high. And yet, the situation remains better than in Gaza, where even daily caloric intake has been controlled by Israel.

In Gaza, Hamas was recently able to negotiate a ceasefire and ease the blockade against the Gaza Strip largely as a result of its rocket attacks. It might still have a terrorist group status by the U.S., the EU and Canada, but its popularity after the eight days of violence is growing.  While there is strong debate over whether Hamas emerged from the conflict as the victor, the fact that it gained points against Fatah is a certainty.

But Hamas is itself divided over how to proceed. They are divided between an external leadership, led by Khaled Meshaal, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. It was Meshaal who called Abbas to encourage him to go ahead with the resolution. How this affects the internal dynamics of a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is yet another unknown variable.

Domestically, little will change for those already in the occupied territories. Even less will change for those Palestinian refugees languishing in camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring countries. Their future is still uncertain and the use of the new-found status as a bargaining chip in negotiations has yet to occur.

The future is far from certain and there are many avenues and possibilities for a notoriously complicated situation. But on Thursday, November 26, 2012 – 65 years to the day of the Partition of Palestine, the PLO stood before the GA, the ‘prestigious international forum, representative and protector of international legitimacy” to “reaffirm our conviction that the international community now stands before the last chance to save the two-State solution.” The chance may already be gone, taking the symbolism that came with it. A stateless people, for all practical purposes, remain, stateless. What the leaders will now do with the symbolic birth certificate of a State of statelessness remains to be seen.